Arnhem Land rock art is continuing to provide a window into Australia’s past, with scientists describing 572 previously unknown images in a paper in the journal Australian Archaeology.
The Maliwawa Figures, which range in age from 6000 to 9400 years, were documented across 87 sites from Awunbarna (Mount Borradaile area) to the Namunidjbuk Estate of the Wellington Range in northwest Arnhem Land.
The researchers suggest they are a missing link between early-style Dynamic Figures, 12,000 years in age, and X-ray figures made in the past 4000 years.
The images were created in various shades of red, with stroke-infill or outline forms and a few red strokes as infill. Some are more than 50-centimetres high.
The scenes depict humans and macropods, including three bilbies and a dugong, and lead researcher Paul Taçon, from Australia’s Griffith University, suggests the presence of various forms of headdresses shows they are not just simple depictions of everyday life.
“Maliwawas are depicted as solitary figures and as part of group scenes showing various activities and some may have a ceremonial context,” he says.
“Human figures are frequently depicted with animals, especially macropods, and these animal-human relationships appear to be central to the artists’ message.
“Indeed, animals are much more common than in the Dynamic Figure style rock art in terms of percentage of subject matter, as 89% of Dynamic Figures are human, whereas only about 42% of Maliwawa Figures are human.”
Griffith colleague and co-author Sally May says the discovery of bilby images at an Awunbarna site was surprising as Arnhem Land historically has not been within their range.
The solitary dugong painting, which is the oldest known image, also appears out of place. “It indicates a Maliwawa artist visited the coast, but the lack of other saltwater fauna may suggest this was not a frequent occurrence,” May says.
However, the intrigue of the paintings goes beyond what they depict, with researchers curious about the artists and the techniques they used.
“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,” Taçon says.
As for the people behind the paintings, Taçon says they cannot rule out the possibility that a small group of artists produced Maliwawa rock paintings.
There is also the possibility that only a couple of artists made the paintings with one responsible for the outline forms, the other creating the fuller stroke-line infill examples.
Amelia Nichele is a science journalist at The Royal Institution of Australia.
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