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Letter from Australia

Where the World Was Born

Newly discovered rock art panels depict how ancient Aboriginal ancestors envisioned climate change and creation

May/June 2021

Australia Dreaming PaintingAlong the northern coast of Australia’s Arnhem Land, the Alligator Rivers wind among towering sandstone outcrops, forming a maze of estuaries that eventually empty into the Timor Sea. Kangaroos hop alongside fish-filled rivers, through tropical savannas, and into thick forests of eucalyptus where dingoes, lizards, wallabies, pythons, and more than 100 species of birds make their home. Entwined with the natural landscape, evocative images of both animals and people painted on rocky crags and inside shallow caves appear as evidence of the region’s human past. West Arnhem Land is home to one of the world’s largest collections of rock art, a testament to the relationship between humans and nature that has thrived here since the Paleolithic era, more than 30,000 years ago. The region remains one of the most pristine and protected wilderness areas on the continent. Today, Arnhem Land is owned and managed by the nearly 12,000 Aboriginal people who call it their home, and whose vital contemporary culture is interwoven with the continent’s richest and longest archaeological record. This landscape is one of the only places in the world where modern Indigenous communities have maintained a millennia-old rock art tradition, preserving a storytelling practice that speaks of their history and culture, and of changes to the earth.


Australia Arnhem MapWhile the rock art of West Arnhem Land represents an artistic record spanning nearly 30,000 years, a 4,000-year stretch of this tradition had until recently eluded archaeologists studying and cataloging the colorful panels. The art from that period existed, researchers suspected, but was hidden amid a seemingly infinite variety of figures and styles. After years of survey and research in the territory, archaeologist Paul Tacon of Griffith University, along with a team of scholars collaborating with local Bininj, Mawng, and Amurdak Aboriginal people, thinks he has found this missing link in a newly identified style of rock art.


R. Lamilami, one of Tacon’s Bininj Aboriginal collaborators and a Traditional Owner in the area where the style is found, has named it the Maliwawa Style, referring to the area’s name in the local Mawng language. Tacon believes that the Maliwawa Style is the sought-after chapter in the history of the region’s rock art, and that it offers a fresh narrative about past climates and how people documented their lives as their environment rapidly transformed around them 10,000 years ago. “The recognition of the Maliwawa figures as a distinct style is important, as it lets us better see the transition between earlier and later paintings,” says Tacon. “The art, the associated stories, and the related practices would have allowed people to better cope with, and even embrace, change.”



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