Herodotus Returns

Australian aboriginal rock art pushes back contact date with Southasia
July 24, 2010, 9:10 pm
Filed under: Australia, Rock Art | Tags: , , , , ,

Makassan traders arrived at the Australian coasts as early as the mid-1600s

Australian archaeologists have found rock art dating from the early 1600s that shows the arrival of south Asian ships. That obviously undermines the popular belief that the continent was completely disconnected from the outside world until British fleets arrived ‘Down Under’ in 1788.

Historians and archaeologists have speculated that visits to the northern parts of Australia from Southeast Asian ships have been happening for hundreds of years before European settlements.

Traders from Makassar (in what is now Indonesia) visited the coast of northern Australia dry and smoke the trepang – or sea cucumber – they caught, before taking their catch back to the Makassar and other Southeasian markets, where it was highly valued. At the hight of the ancient trepang trade, large fleets of Macassan ships would sail to Arnhem Land and stay for the entire monsoon season. The trade lasted up to the end of the 19th century.

Dr Stewart Fallon at ANU now radiocarbon dated the beeswax snake above the dug out canoe to between 1624 and 1674AD, meaning that this is a minimum age for the sailing vessel painting. The rock art evidence dates the visits back as early as the 17th century.

More from Heritage Key.


Aboriginal art in Australia could be oldest in world
June 1, 2010, 7:59 pm
Filed under: Australia, Rock Art

Rock art recently found on a shelter wall in Northern Australia displays a large bird resembling Geyornis, an emu-like megafauna that supposedly disappeared from Australia 40,000 years ago. If the painting is in fact a depiction of Geyornis and if the bird in fact went extinct when researchers say it did, then this painting is the oldest rock art in the world, predating Chauvet cave in France by 7,000 years. Currently, the earliest dated pigment in Australia is 28,000 years BP.

But there’s no good archaeological or palaeontological evidence that Genyornis survived longer than about 40,000 years ago, says Bruno David, an archaeologist and rock art specialist at Monash University in Melbourne, who has seen photos of the painting and who has worked in the region. “If this is Genyornis, then it has to be more than 40,000 years old,” he says.

Robert is now planning to record the site in much more detail, and next year Bruno and his team will excavate the area thoroughly. A rock fall created the exposed face on which the painting was made. By studying buried samples from beneath the fallen rock, the team should be able to work out the age of the rock face. If it is older than 40,000 years, this won’t prove that the painting is that old, but it will support the idea that it could be.

Some rock art specialists strongly suspect that the painting is younger. The oldest pigment found on a rock anywhere in Australia is 28,000 years old, but the image is so covered with dust and other rocky accretions, it’s impossible to know what it looked like.

The Genyornis site is a shallow shelter and most such paintings in Australia are thought to be less than about 5,000 years old; older ones are thought to have been eroded away by weather. The Chauvet artworks, in contrast, are deep inside a cave that was sealed for more than 20,000 years. However, some of the sandstone in Arnhem Land does have the advantage of being extremely hard and durable.

More on the extinct megafauna rock art in Australia.

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.