Native Village
Youth and Education news
October 2010 Volume 4

Louvre on the Rocks: Cache of Aboriginal Art Revealed

Condensed by Native Village

Australia: Archaeologists have offered details about what may be one of the world's most important collections of rock art.  The treasure of more than 3,000 paintings and images has been found in Djulirri (rhymes with "Hillary").

The extraordinary cache lies in a remote and sparsely populated region. The site was almost completely unknown to science.

Djulirri's rock walls bear images of kangaroos, Tasmanian tigers, ships, a snake ritual, European missionaries, even a biplane.

The oldest paintings at Djulirri is 12,000 -15,000 years old; the newest, roughly 50. Some areas have 20 layers of artworks, one painted atop the other.

"I've been documenting and visiting rock art sites for about 30 years now," says Paul Tacon of Griffith University/ "And Djulirri is one of the most impressive and outstanding sites I've ever been to."

"This is art that is significant internationally, not only for its beauty but for the insights it gives into how humans adapt to change," Claire Smith, president of the World Archaeological Congress.

One image is unique to Djulirri: a stencil of a bird, probably a species called the singing honeyeater. Scientists say the image may be more than 9,000 years old. The artist created it by holding a real bird against the rock wall, then skillfully blowing red paint over it to create an outline.

Another depiction is a Southeast Asian boat painted in the 1600s. That overturns an assumption that Aboriginal people lived in isolation until the British arrived in the 1700s.

Aboriginal artists may have used rock images to pass on knowledge and document their history, including contacts with people from different lands. Native Australians "refer to these sorts of sites as their libraries or their history books," Tacon said.

While most of the famous prehistoric rock paintings are found in caves, Djulirri's art was created in above-ground rock "shelters." The roomlike spaces with rock walls and often, rock ceilings made ideal camping sites for families searching for food. Djulirri is both spacious and has a natural spring.

Perhaps this location is why Djulirri's rocks were repeatedly used as a canvas. No other site in Australia has so many paintings in so many different styles, Tacon says.

However, rock art sites used for thousands of years are found throughout the world. Rock art expert David Whitley says t North America also boasts rock art sites used for 10,000 years. That's close to the age span for Djulirri.

Those who've seen Djulirri comment on the large amount of art about the Aborigines' contact with outsiders. It offers us valuable window into the experiences with their first encounters with foreign cultures,

"We usually reconstruct the contact period through the views and travel diaries of the Europeans," says Ines Domingo Sanz of the University of Barcelona. "For me, these paintings are like the visual travel diaries of the indigenous people, who used the walls of this site complex to reflect their own views on this story."

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