Rock art from western Arnhem Land. Simple figure with spears and spearthrower.
My posts may be a little erratic over next few days as Jan and I drive the 3000+ kilometres from Darwin to Adelaide. Internet connections are patchy. But I do hope to find interesting pictures and stories along the way. Thanks for following this blog…I hope you enjoy the pictures and stories as much as I enjoy sharing.

A somewhat cheeky portrayal of the female figure in this rock art image from Western Arnhem land. The artist has not only exaggerated the nipples but has carefully added a spiky bush of pubic hair, something that is quite unusual. On the right she has a woven dilly bag hung around her neck and in her left hand (at the viewer’s right) she carries a goose-wing feathered fan.

Two of my favourite rock art images from the West Arnhem Land Plateau executed with such bold and confident strokes. In the incomplete picture of a Black Wallaroo the artist has emphasised the strong musculature of the Wallaroo’s forearms — a distinctive feature of the males of this species. The male is called Barrk in Kundedjnyenghmi dialect. The exaggerated perspective in the human figure emphasises the powerful legs of a figure running at full speed. These paintings are separated by only about 40 metres and I feel they have been painted by the same artist.

This simple but elegant and graceful depiction of the female figure is one of tens of thousands of rock art images from the Western Arnhem Plateau. Only a small percentage have been recorded. The reddish orange pigment used here has soaked into the porous sandstone surface and has become very stable and permanent. This also makes it hard to tell the age of the painting, it might be as recent as a few hundred years old or it might be from earlier times in a tradition of art and occupation going back more than 40,000 years. 

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.

The feisty Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) is a tough character for sure. The devil’s large head and neck allow it to generate the strongest bite per unit body mass of any extant mammal land predator. But since the early 1990s devils in their eponymous heartland have been threatened by devil facial tumour disease which has dramatically reduced the population and led to an endangered status in 2008. But while conservation bodies are making some way in ensuring the survival of the Devils in Tasmania, the Devils of mainland Australia are long-gone. It is generally accepted that they were spread across the continent in pleistocene times but went extinct through many local extinctions about 3000 years. As for the demise of Thylacines, dingoes are the main suspects.
Their presence in the Northern Territory is demonstrated only by a single fossil from near Darwin and depictions in rock art. I’m quite confident that the animal in the rock art image from the West Arnhem Land plateau is a Tasmanian Devil on the basis of a distinctive body shape, prominent whiskers and posture. The short tail is most persuasive. Tasmanian Devils are not spotted, while another carnivorous mammal, the northern quoll is spotted. But the Northern Quoll has a particularly long tail, tufted at the end. We can be fairly confident that the spots are only decorative in this image — unless of course we had a spotted sub-species of Devil in the north.
As with a lot of rock art, images are often overpainted and indeed the sequencing has been used to provide broad understanding of the chronology of changing styles over the 40,000 plus years since people first put ochre to rock. In this case it’s not easy to tell which came first, the Devil or the Goanna.
The image was recorded on a survey in Marrirn country last month and the excellent Devil drawing was made in Tasmania in 1880 by Louisa Ann Meredith.

Karndayh stencils

I spent last week working with people of the Marrirn clan in Western Arnhem Land recording rock art images made anytime from tens of thousands of years ago to the mid-twentieth century. At one site (top) we came across a line of symbols made by an artist blowing a slurry of white pigment from his mouth past a hand with a bent finger to create stencilled images. The symbol on rock and hand signal signifies karndayh, the female antilopine kangaroo (Macropus antilopinus). When out hunting, someone spotting karndayh would not (for obvious reasons) speak to communicate but rather perhaps touch their companion’s arm and use the bent-fingered hand symbol to say “game on” and gesture “karndayh over there”. The symbol can be made with right or left hand — the rock stencil is with a left hand, my example with my right. The act of making a symbol on rock in this way is called bid-kuykmerren. Hands of adults and children are often stencilled and sometimes the feet of infants. Boomerangs and other material culture objects are also stencilled. We have no idea or way of knowing when the row of karndayh stencils was made and we can only guess that perhaps the group indicates a hunter creating a record of his prowess. The central element of the rock painting below is karndayh and off to the left at shoulder height is the crooked finger symbol. This painting was made mid-twentieth century by the famed artist Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek AO. This is the only example I know of a rock painting with a caption.