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A new paper introduces 570 examples of Maliwawa rock art in rock shelters in Western Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory. This image shows a rock art depiction of a Maliwawa macropod found in the Namunidjbuk clan estate of the Wellington Range. Source: (P. Taçon / Australian Archaeology)

Ancient Lifeforms and Odd Humans Depicted in Maliwawa Rock Art

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The timeworn relationship between humans and animals has been found depicted on 570 ancient paintings discovered within 87 rock shelters in Western Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory. In the journal Australian Archaeology , Professor Paul Taçon, Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow and Griffith University Chair in Rock Art Research, has published a new paper which claims that Australian rock art sites rival those in Europe, southern Africa and various parts of Asia. The new discoveries consist primarily of large human figures and animals in a style known as Maliwawa Figures.

Another example of Maliwawa rock art was discovered at the Awunbarna site showing an indeterminate Maliwawa human with lines suggestive of hair all over its body. (P. Taçon / Australian Archaeology)

Another example of Maliwawa rock art was discovered at the Awunbarna site showing an indeterminate Maliwawa human with lines suggestive of hair all over its body. (P. Taçon / Australian Archaeology )

Animal-Human Relationship as Central Theme in Maliwawa Rock Art

Every year new artworks are being discovered by Aboriginal communities . Maliwawa Figures are generally made with shades of red paint depicting human and animal forms, in which shaded areas are achieved with stroked angled lines, an attempt by ancient designers to add a three dimensional aspect to their art. The 570 newly discovered paintings depict human figures wearing headdresses. The figures measure between 20 and 50 centimeters high (7.7 to 12.6 inches). Professor Taçon explains that they were executed between “6,000 to 9,400 years ago,” representing “a missing link” between the well-known early-style Dynamic Figures from about 12,000 years ago, and X-ray figures made in the past 4000 years.

The Maliwawa art depicts groups of human figures with animals, with 42% making up the former. The animal-human relationship is a central theme in this ancient art, explains the new paper. Furthermore, the frequency and variability of headdresses suggests that some of the art might have ceremonial significance. "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," expands Dr. Taçon in Science Alert .

The research team discovered what appears to be a pair of Maliwawa rock art depictions of two back-to-back bilbies at the Awunbarna site. (P. Taçon / Australian Archaeology)

The research team discovered what appears to be a pair of Maliwawa rock art depictions of two back-to-back bilbies at the Awunbarna site. (P. Taçon / Australian Archaeology )

Identifying Unknown Species from a Lost World

What is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the new artworks has been the discovery of what appear to be bilbies. According to co-author Dr. Sally K. May, from Griffith University's Evolution and Rock Art Heritage Unit, these bilbies are generally associated with arid and semi-arid environments far to the south. “Arnhem Land has not been within their range in historic times,” she explains in an EurekAlert! article. However, there still exists the possibility that these depictions are actually Agile Wallabies, Northern Nailtail Wallabies or Short-eared Rock-wallabies, but she continues to explain that the confusion arises because all of these species have much shorter ears and snouts than the other extant bilbies depicted at Awunbarna arts.

The identification of what the researchers describe as “oldest know depiction of a dugong” has also raised questions within the team. The solitary context in which it was found “seems out of place,” explains Dr. May, because it was found about 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) south of the Arafura Sea. Add to this that around 6000 to 9400 years ago the coast would have been much further north. This observation indicates that maybe one of the Maliwawa artists had visited the coast. However, in Phys.org, the archaeologists assert that having discovered no other carvings of marine life, such a voyage “was not a frequent occurrence.”

The Animals of Australian Culture in Maliwawa Rock Art

Some of the artworks depict large back-to-back macropods, bilbies and humans, with small spaces between them. These are “the oldest known examples” ever discovered in western Arnhem Land. What's more, it was also determined that this group of Maliwawan rock art was probably created sporadically in a short period of time by only a couple artists, “with one responsible for the more outline forms with minimal infill and another creating much of the fuller stroke-line infill examples,” the paper explains.

Taçon concludes that the particular style of Maliwawa rock art has “implications for rock art research everywhere in Australia.” This style of depiction is suggested to have been made over hundreds of years or millennia. Speaking about what this discovery might mean in modern Australian culture, The Guardian says there are as many as “100,000 ancient sites” in this one region of Maliwawa, representing “tens of thousands of years of artistic activity.” With such an overwhelming abundance of indigenous rock art being discovered, a newfound appreciation of indigenous history might be seeded. Hopefully this will encourage the funding required for the protection of such sites within Australia.

Top image: A new paper introduces 570 examples of Maliwawa rock art in rock shelters in Western Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory. This image shows a rock art depiction of a Maliwawa macropod found in the Namunidjbuk clan estate of the Wellington Range. Source: (P. Taçon / Australian Archaeology )

By Ashley Cowie

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