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.


35,000-year-old cave art found in Romania
June 15, 2010, 6:32 am
Filed under: Cave Paintings, Rock Art, Romania | Tags: , , ,

Romanian experts have discovered the most ancient cave paintings found to date in Central Europe, aged up to 35,000 years old, Romanian and French scientists said Sunday. Everything I’ve ever read about Central/Eastern European prehistoric art cites abundant portable artifacts, like figurines and small models, but a dearth of cave art. This, obviously, changes that. It’s good to have Jean Clottes’s stamp of approval here. No pictures released of the art yet. I’m wondering if styles will reflect what we see in Western Europe. Theoretically, the people who painted Lascaux passed through Romania on their way to France.

The pictures show animals including a buffalo, a horse and even a rhinoceros.

“It is for the first time in Central Europe that… art this old has been found and confirmed”, said a joint statement from the Romanian Federation of Speleology — the scientific study of caves — and Jean Clottes, an expert working with UNESCO.

It is a “major discovery” and “its authenticity is certain”, Clottes, a specialist in prehistoric art, told AFP. He was called on by Romanian specialists to certify the discovery.

His team included cavers, a paleontologist, an archaeologist and two cave art specialists and estimated the drawings were “attributable to a period of ancient rock art, the Gravettian or the Aurignacian (between 23,000 and 35,000 years ago).”

Carbon tests must confirm these estimates, they said.

The black-paint drawings, discovered three or four months ago in the Coliboaia cave in northwestern Romania, depict animals, including a buffalo, a horse, bear heads and rhinoceros, federation chief Viorel Traian Lascu said.

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.

Fresh vandalism, theft reported at petroglyph site

Reports say Inscription Canyon, an important Native American rock art site in the Mojave Desert, has been vandalized. People have been using the petroglyph-covered walls as target practice (the walls are riddledwith bullet holes), as well as simply stealing inscribed rocks by loading them into pickup trucks. This is just one of several cases of rock art vandalism I’ve read about this year (recently, at Sears Point Arizona) and it makes me no less ill. Archaeological looting happens all over the world, but it seems that Americans are even more willing than others to squander their heritage. The lack of awareness of native american archaeological sites in the US is disturbing: we only hear about sites like Inscrition Canyon when they are destroyed. Read the article:

Art older than the Mona Lisa graces the Mojave Desert’s vermillion rocks, yet the only security system that protects it is secrecy and a harsh landscape.

Ancient people once carved animals, humanoid figures and intricate pattens into canyon walls for reasons only they know at thousands of sites throughout the desert. But with people accessing these remote areas with off-road vehicles, vandalism and theft has increased.

Inscription Canyon, north of Hinkley, is one area people know about. Archaeologist Jim Shearer, who works with the Bureau of Land Management, estimates that between 2,000 and 5,000 people a year visit the site to view its petroglyphs. It bears signs of vandalism and theft as fresh as this year, he said.

More on the vandaliam at Inscription Canyon.

Bhimbetka rock shelters, India
May 1, 2010, 3:13 pm
Filed under: Hunter-Gatherer, India, Rock Art, Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

I recently had a chance to visit the Bhimbetka rock shelters in Madhya Pradesh, India, which hold one of the greatest galleries of prehistoric art anywhere in the world. This cluster of sandstone rock formations were home to nomadic hunter-gatherers from as far back as 100,000 years ago right up to the 1700s (Medieval period). That’s 1117 centuries of continuous habitation. On the walls of the shelters, there are layers upon layers of beautiful paintings, dating back about 10,000 years. Some depict daily life – people herding animals, for example – others are more enigmatic depictions of mythical beasts and anthropomorphic figures. An article about my visit is forthcoming in Culturama magazine in Chennai. I’ll post the pdf when it comes out.

photos courtesy of Archaeological Survey of India.

werner herzog to make documentary on chauvet cave
April 29, 2010, 9:34 am
Filed under: Rock Art | Tags: , , , ,

Werner Herzog has been given permission to make a documentary film about the Chauvet cave in France. This is extraordinary news. Chauvet is the greatest trove of preshitoric art anywhere in the world, the Holy Grail. The paintings on these cave walls go back to the Aurginacian – that’s 33,000 years ago, almost twice as old as the paintings in the more famous Lascuax (17,000 years). Photographs of the paintings in Chauvet reveal some of the most beautiful, delicate, sensitively rendered images – in the greatest abundance – throughout prehistory. As famously beautiful and crucial as Chauvet is among archaeologists, it just as famously inaccessible. After seeing how years of heavy tourism nearly destroyed the paintings in Lascaux (lichen and mold corroded the paintings), the caretakers at Chauvet, knowing how priceless of a treasure they hold, have sealed off the cave to just about everyone. No tourists, of course, but only a handful of researchers even have been allowed to see the paintings firsthand. Prominent rock art scholars who have dedicated lives to studying prehistoric cave paintings have been turned away. To my mind (and many agree), few places in the world are so tantalizing.  Werner Herzog, the German documentarian-savant, meanwhile, ‘talked his way into the cave.’  Herzog was allowed to go into the cave on two separate occasions – of course, following very tight restrictions – to shoot a 3-D documentary. It will be the first time the public has seen these paintings except for in photographs. I can hear Herzog’s trademark Teutonic stage voice echoing in the cave now…

Here’s a little more from The Guardian.