9,000-Year-Old Australian Rock Art Depicts Human Connection to Wildlife

The maliwawa image collected from the aboriginal Namunidjbuk estate in the Wellington Range of Australia depicts a macropod. (Courtesy of Paul Taçon, Griffith University)

(CN) — Hundreds of artistic rock carvings by indigenous Australians have been documented for the first time, and their depictions of macropods, ceremonial events and human-animal interactions 9,000 years ago point to our species’ continuing connections with wildlife, researchers said in a study released Thursday. 

The 570 rock art pieces, located in Northern Australia’s wildlife-rich Arnhem Land, include rare depictions of bilbies — a desert-dwelling marsupial — and the oldest known image of a dugong, a type of large marine mammal.

The newly imaged rock art pieces range in age from 6,000 to 9,400 years old and are named “maliwawa” figures, according to the study published Thursday in the journal Australian Archaeology.

Researchers collected the pieces from 87 sites — including in Awunbarna, in Australia’s Mount Borradaile area and in an aboriginal Namunidjbuk estate in the Wellington Range — between 2008 and 2018.

Some of the maliwawa carvings are as tall as an average-size human and contain red-ink-painted images of various animals and of humans with headdresses or humans gathering in groups.

Lead researcher Paul Taçon of Griffith University in South East Queensland, Australia, said in a statement the rock art offers a glimpse into a time in humanity’s history when our villages were deeply in tune with nature.

“Human figures are frequently depicted with animals, especially macropods, and these animal-human relationships appear to be central to the artists’ message,” Taçon said. “The artists are clearly communicating aspects of their cultural beliefs, with an emphasis on important animals and interactions between humans and other humans or animals.”

Taçon said in some artistic carvings it appears as if animals are participating in or watching various human activities.

“This occurrence, and the frequency and variability of headdresses, suggests a ritual context for some of the production of maliwawa rock art,” Taçon said.

According to the study, these maliwawa images provide a “missing link” between the more well-known “dynamic” figures from 12,000 years ago and the “X-ray” images produced in the last 4,000 years.

A large male human is depicted in this maliwawa figure collected by researchers from a site in the Awunbarna in Australia’s Mount Borradaile region. (Courtesy of Paul Taçon, Griffith University)

The maliwawa pieces contain more images of animals than the “dynamic’ figures, the study said.

Study co-author Sally K. May of Griffith University said in the statement the inclusion of bilbies in the maliwawa figures was a surprising find for researchers. 

“Bilbies are associated with arid and semi-arid environments far to the south and Arnhem Land has not been within their range in historic times,” May said. “Two of these animals are back-to-back and almost identical in size. The third bilby-like depiction appears to have been made at a different time, and perhaps by a different artist, as it is larger, has a longer snout, has more line infill, and is in a lighter shade of red.”

May said the bilby image could also be depicting agile wallabies, northern nailtail wallabies or short-eared rock-wallabies, though those species have shorter ears and snouts than bilbies.

Another surprise for May was seeing the image of the dugong carved into rock.

“Today it is located about 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) south of the Arafura Sea, but 6,000 to 9,400 years ago the coast would have been further north,” May said. “It indicates a maliwawa artist visited the coast but the lack of other saltwater fauna may suggest this was not a frequent occurrence.”

Researchers said the maliwawa figures contain a new artistic style not seen in rock art images from other eras: carvings of humans and animals standing back-to-back. 

“The maliwawa back-to-back figures are the oldest known for western Arnhem Land and it appears this painting convention began with the maliwawa style,” Taçon said. “It continues to the present with bark paintings and paintings on paper.” 

Remaining questions for researchers include whether the maliwawa figures were produced by a small group of artists or by just two artists who could have divided the creative work amongst themselves.

Taçon said researchers will also probe whether the maliwawa figures set an artistic precedent in the manner of depicting wildlife and human communities. 

“So, perhaps what we are observing is increasing standardization in the manner of depiction after the period in which dynamic figures were made,” Taçon said. “This has implications for rock art research everywhere in which a style or manner of depiction is suggested to have been made over hundreds of years or millennia.”

Researchers did not immediately respond to a request for further comment on the study.

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