Archaeology breakthrough: Researchers discover treasure-trove of ancient Australian art

Remarkable new rock art images have been found by archaeologists in Australia’s Northern Territory. Images include three rare depictions of bilbies, a type of desert-dwelling marsupial, and a dugong, a medium-sized marine mammal, were included in the haul.

In all, the archaeologists documented 572 hitherto-unknown images up to 9,400 years-old across 87 sites.

They’re a missing link between the well-known early-style Dynamic Figures, about 12,000 years of age, and X-ray figures made in the past 4000 years

Professor Paul Taçon

These Maliwawa artworks include depictions of life-size naturalistic humans and macropods, such as kangaroos and wallabies.

The artworks are primarily drawn using several hues of red.

These incorporated stroke-infill or outline forms with a few red strokes as infill and are shown with very little material culture.

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Professor Paul Taçon, of Griffith University, believes the rock art offers a rare window into the past.

He said in a statement: ”They’re a missing link between the well-known early-style Dynamic Figures, about 12,000 years of age, and X-ray figures made in the past 4000 years.”

“Maliwawas are depicted as solitary figures and as part of group scenes showing various activities and some may have a ceremonial context.

“Human figures are frequently depicted with animals, especially macropods, and these animal-human relationships appear to be central to the artists’ message.”

And the artwork is all the more important because the Maliwawa Figures depict more than everyday life scenes.

Professor 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.

“Indeed, animals are much more common than in the Dynamic Figure style rock art in terms of percentage of subject matter, as 89 percent of Dynamic Figures are human, whereas only about 42 percent of Maliwawa Figures are human.”

The archaeologist added animals in some scenes possibly appeared to be participating in or watching some human activity.

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He said: ”This occurrence, and the frequency and variability of headdresses, suggests a ritual context for some of the production of Maliwawa rock art.

The archaeological team’s author Dr Sally May, also from Griffith University, added how the discovery of apparent bilbies were among the more surprising discoveries.

She said: ”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.

“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.

“There is also the possibility that the depictions are of Agile Wallabies, Northern Nailtail Wallabies or Short-eared Rock-wallabies, all widespread across Kakadu-Arnhem Land today, but all of these species have much shorter ears and snouts than extant bilbies and the creatures depicted at Awunbarna.”

And she added another shocking discovery was finding the oldest-known depiction of a dugong.

She said: ”The solitary dugong painting also seems out of place.

“Today it is located about 1km south of the Arafura Sea but 6,000 to 9,400 years ago the coast would have been further north.

“It indicates a Maliwawa artist visited the coast but the lack of other saltwater fauna may suggest this was not a frequent occurrence.”

One site in particular shows two large macropods back-to-back with a small space between them.

And there are also some back-to-back human figures, along with back-to-back ‘bilbies’.

Professor Taçon added: ”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.

“It continues to the present with bark paintings and paintings on paper.

“But was the Maliwawa rock art sporadic and made during a short time period or did it continue over a long period of time?”

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