When the last member of the Barradj Clan died about 20 years ago she bequeathed her traditional lands to Dean Yibarbuk, who she regarded as her closest blood relative since they had a grandmother in common. Dean, the older guy with dreadlocks, is a senior ranger and expert in indigenous knowledge whose own father’s country is in lowland country on the Liverpool River floodplains. Early in 2014 Dean brought his family and some of Warddeken’s rangers on an expedition to survey some of the rock art sites in the country for which he now has management responsibility. From the ranger base at Kabulwarnamyo the survey party was choppered into the Kunbambuk location and spent five days finding and recording rock art. Some 21 separate sites were found, with more than 300 separate images recorded. The pictures ranged in age from the oldest styles of more than 20,000 years BP to the post contact era. Only one post contact era painting was found and we concluded that this marked a time when the bands on Barradj country went down to lowlands where feral buffalo had spread widely. From the late nineteenth century into the 20th century rugged Europeans and local Aboriginal people worked together shooting buffalo and preparing their hides for sale. The plateau country is beautiful country but not bountiful in easily hunted meat. The single post-contact image at the top here is a picture of the hind leg of a buffalo, showing the meat and bones and at left the cloven hoof. Dean and I concluded that people who had been down amongst the buffalo camps brought news of the readily available red meat back to the Barradj band at Kunbambuk. To make their point they drew this lifesize representation of just one leg from a buffalo. It seems that after this image was painted people gathered their possessions and went down to the buffalo camps. This probably happened early in the 20th century. People worked in the buffalo industry and were often paid with tobacco and soon developed nicotine addiction. Elders say that it was addiction to tobacco and ready availability of a variety of other trade goods that caused depopulation of the plateau. Since about 1970 people have been coming back to resettle the plateau. In the lower pictures Dean and young ranger Gavin Phillips have raked flammable grasses and leaves away from the painted shelters and have burned off. If left unburned, spinifex and other materials can accumulate and then a fire ignited by lightning can do serious damage to the paintings.
The Asian Water Buffalo (Bubalis bubalis) was introduced into the Northern Territory at the time of first colonial occupation. Between 1824 and 1849 they were brought from Timor, Kisar and probably other islands in Indonesia. The first European settlements failed but the imported buffalo thrived. By the early 1960s there were believed to be more than 200,000 feral buffalo living on the coastal floodplains between Darwin and Arnhem Land. They wreaked environmental havoc, in various ways, but creating channels for saltwater intrusion was one of the most damaging. But despite a population explosion on the lowlands, they did not arrive on the Arnhem Land Plateau until the mid-twentieth century, said Bardayal Nadjamerrek who was born on the plateau in 1926 and witnessed their coming. But the people of the plateau had long encountered buffalo on trips to visit other indigenous clans in the lowlands. These big and sometimes dangerous beasts created strong impressions in a landscape where the biggest animals had been emus and kangaroos. These first impressions of buffalo remain, albeit tenuously, in rock art depictions. Keith Nadjamerrek, son of Bardayal, is pictured beside an early and almost lifesize painting of a buffalo on his clan estate of Mankung Djang. The painting is slowly being lost to wind and water erosion. The depiction of the buffalo head is very interesting. The artist has drawn the head in both plan and side elevation views — the plan view showing the ears and horns and the side elevation showing the jaws and teeth. Perhaps, stretching reality a little for the sake of good story, the jaws have been drawn with recurved teeth, like a python, hinting at the power and dangerousness of the beast.
On the plateau the buffalo populations escaped much of the cull which wiped out the damaging herds on the floodplains in the 1990s. The highland buffalo have been causing great damage to the delicate upland wetlands through trampling, pugging and creating erosion channels. For about eight years now the indigenous land management group, Warddeken Land Management Limited has been undertaking an annual buffalo cull with highly trained shooters operating from helicopters and targeting the areas where most damage is happening. This important action has turned around a dismal future for the upland wetlands which are returning to health.