Monday, 4 April 2016

CULTURE: Ancient art in Arnhem Land

"Australia rock art - Mimis and Kangaroo, rock art, Oenpelli, Arnhem Land, Australia. Older painting before 7,000 BCE, Kangaroo probably post-contact. (Sayre, 2010, p. 975)" -

Bill Harney, looking at cave art in Arnhem Land in the 1940s:

Kangaroos, bandicoots, fish, reptiles - all are drawn nice and fat because he desires them that way.

Many of the paintings have been drawn as though seen through an X-ray, and beholding them we are amazed at the line details of the creature's internal organs. I questioned one of the artists who was working on a bark painting, and he described things to me.

"This," he explained, as he pointed out an object amidst the intestines, "is the fat." Then, with emphasis, "Proper fat this one." "That there," again on the anatomy, "is the heart. This red thing is the liver and the fine white lines are the backbone."

Each part was pointed out and it was correctly in place. Nothing strange about this, because these people had been cutting up and eating these things for years. They were professional anatomists when the drawings of the ancient white doctors would have been laughed at by an Oenpelli aborigine.

It was on those hills around Oenpelli that I saw the matchstick art that is so full of animation. My guide told me that it was the work of "Me-mies", the mythical bush elves who are "too clever" to be seen, and who draw these things, in the dark, from a paint made up of human blood and charcoal. Those "Me-mies" were indeed "too clever" - a few strokes on the rocky face and the picture was a group of natives fleeing from another.

I asked the native what he thought about them. He only shrugged his shoulders in reply, but shortly afterwards when we came upon a meaningless thing of coloured ochres and lines his voice vibrated with pride as he explained it in detail. The lines were the falling rain; the red streaks were the lightning thrown by a sky hero; the dots were the rain drops splashing on the ground below, which was another splash of ochre; the wriggly lines were the rivers in flood.

"Good picture?" I questioned him, as he stood expectantly by awaiting my decision. "Proper good," came his reply. "Plenty rain... full up tucker."

- "Life Among The Aborigines" by W. E. Harney, Robert Hale Limited (1957) - pp. 117-118

Writing in 2013 about the estimated 100,000 sites of aboriginal Australian art, Susan Gough Henly says:

"In spite of extensive studies, it is still extremely difficult to pinpoint the age of rock art because most organic pigments cannot be carbon dated. A rare charcoal drawing on the Central Arnhem Land Plateau has been radiocarbon-dated to 28,000 years ago, making it the oldest painting in Australia and among the oldest in the world with reliable date evidence – but the engravings are probably much older."


What is thought to be the oldest cave painting in the world - from Sulawesi in Indonesia - has been dated to at least 39,000 years ago. It is a hand stencil (something also found at Oenpelli):

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