To me, Kakadu National Park was the most interesting and impressive site. This 20,000 sq km park has been returned to, and is managed by the indigenous owners. Aboriginals have occupied this area for c50,000 years ago. The simplest of figures eg shadows of hands & stick figures of kangaroos and crocodiles, were created over 8,000 years ago.
Lightning man Namargon (centre) and his wife/sister Barrgini (below)
The thylacine/Tasmanian tiger is depicted in Kakadu National Park, but this animal has been extinct on the main-land from the end of the Ice Age, 14,000 years ago. Today the thylacine is only found in Tasmania, a much colder area.
As sea levels rose 6,000 years ago, fish like barramundi and catfish were depicted, then crocodiles.
Mythical figures began to be depicted at this time also, depicting figures of cultural significance to the Aboriginals. Until the modern era (late C17th) the aboriginals have had an undisturbed presence in this land. The whole of this vast continent of Australia was occupied by Aboriginals, divided into clans who shared the land with their neighbours. The boundaries were defined by the elders who handed down this information orally, from father to son etc. Although they were hunters and gatherers, they had their preferred camping areas, depending on the season.
The clans did not have property, apart from what they could carry, so they developed their sharing culture as a result. And as they were constantly on the move and living off the land, there was no written tradition. The land and the animals were bound by culture to everything they did. When a child was born he became culturally tethered to an animal eg a kangaroo; the young ecologist spent his life caring for and protecting that animal and land.
When they were at a camping area for some time, families depicted their culture on the rocks under which they were sheltering. The area at Kakadu where the art is found is under sandstone shelters, caused by splitting and erosion of the overlying cliffs. These galleries provided shelter for sleeping, washing and protection from the elements.
Fly river turtle,
The material that was used to make the art was found in the surrounding area. Ochre was ground up iron oxide rocks, which are plentiful all over North and West Australia; they were mixed with water, spit or egg to enable it to stick to the walls. Ochre seeped into the sandstone and lasted the longest. Ground up rocks such as lumonite (yellow), kaolin (white), charcoal from the fires (black) and others were used. Their brushes were made from hair, reeds or feathers.
Their creation stories were depicted by the artists to be a record for the future generations. Images such as the lightning man Namargon and his wife/sister Barrgini depicted punishment for breaking ancestral law; they became Ginga the great saltwater crocodile. Other images depicted Mabuyu i.e stealing.
Aboriginal occupation occurred across residual, detached parts of the Arnhem Land plateau around East Alligator River. Groups of Aboriginal people camped in rock shelters around Ubirr Rock to take advantage of the enormous variety of foods available from the river, flood plain and woodlands. The rock extension of the main gallery provided an area where a family could set up camp. Food items were regularly painted on the back wall, one on top of the other, to pay respect to the particular animal or to ensure future hunting success. Animals painted in the main gallery are barramundi, catfish, mullet, goannas, long-necked turtles, pig-nosed turtles, rock ring tail possums and wallabies.
Fishes and turtle,
Kakadu National Park
The art often appeared under sandstone "galleries"
Ubirri Rock, in the East Alligator region
There are dozens of art sites at Ubirri Rock, located mainly in shelters. Early paintings were painted over with large multi-coloured art. European buffalo hunters employed Aboriginal people to help them hunt; thus we can assume the buffalo hunters were painted in the 1880s.
Mythological Rainbow Serpents were powerful Creation Ancestors that were known to tribes throughout Australia. At Ubirr the Rainbow Serpent is called Garranga'rreli. In her human form, she was called Birriwilk and travelled through this area with another woman looking for sweet lily roots. As she passed through Ubirr she painted her image on the rock to remind people of her presence. She rested in the forest at Manngarre, digging a hole in the cool sand.
The Namarrgarn Sisters were painted at Ubirr pulling string apart. They lived in the stars from where they could throw down pieces of string, attach them to people's organs, quickly travel down the string, and make people very sick.Map of Northern Territory and Western Australia
Press to find Kakadu and Alligator River
From Map Top End Journey
A painting by Mimi spirits can be seen high up on the ceiling of the overhang. Aboriginal people describe how the Mimi spirits came out of the cracks in the rocks, pulled the ceiling rock down, painted the yellow and red sorcery image, and then pushed the rock back into place.
Rock Art is not being produced anymore but the Aboriginals who now own their land are taking great care to protect these ancient sites. Visitors who come to Australia will love to travel north to see the beauty and serenity of this untouched gem. And read Kakadu and Nitmiluk by Dean Hoatson et all, Canberra, 2000.