Herodotus Returns

Australian archaeologists undertake groundbreaking rock art study
May 13, 2010, 2:59 pm
Filed under: Australia, Rock Art | Tags: , , ,

Mike Morwood and rock art specialist June Ross will be spending the next few years in remote parts of the Kimberly (northwestern Australia), documenting ancient rock art that may date back as far as 40,000 years.  It is difficult to overstate how important this study will be to understanding the first Australians. During the Ice Age, when much of the world’s oceans was locked up in glaciers, the distance between Australia and southeast Asia was much less than it is today. Humans who had migrated from Africa 70,000-80,000 years ago made their way east along the coast to Southeast Asia, then – via a remarkable sea journey – crossed into Australia. Kimberly would have been one of the first places the first Australians landed. As of now, I believe the earliest Australian rock art dates back to 40,000 years ago. This three-year study in Kimberly may push that back, which would, in turn, re-write the continent’s cognitive evolutionary history. Morwood’s (who, by the way, lead the expedition that uncovered the ‘hobbit’ in Flores) and Ross’s research could change the entire landscape of Australian archaeology.

Across the Kimberley, hundreds of thousands of paintings lie in rock overhangs and caves, often behind curtains of tropical vines. Dappled light plays over the surface of hauntingly beautiful images that have made the region famous: Gwion Gwion or Bradshaw paintings depicting slender dancing figures in mulberry coloured ochre or younger images of Wandjina spirits, wide-eyed and startlingly white despite the passage of years.

But who were these prodigious artists, when did they come and what other traces did they leave of their presence? Such questions are among the most crucial in Australian archeology, according to Morwood and Ross. Like Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, they say, the Kimberley may hold vital clues to understanding the origins of the first Australians.

“In fact, given the proximity of island southeast Asia and the relatively short water crossing required at times of lowered sea level, the Kimberley was a likely beach-head for the initial peopling of Australia,” Morwood says.

More on the expedition.


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