Category Archives: Kimberley Region

This 17,500-year-old kangaroo in the Kimberley is Australia’s oldest Aboriginal rock painting



Damien Finch, Author provided

Damien Finch, The University of Melbourne; Andrew Gleadow, The University of Melbourne; Janet Hergt, The University of Melbourne, and Sven Ouzman, University of Western Australia

In Western Australia’s northeast Kimberley region, on Balanggarra Country, a two-metre-long painting of a kangaroo spans the sloping ceiling of a rock shelter above the Drysdale River.

In a paper published today in Nature Human Behaviour, we date the artwork as being between 17,500 and 17,100 years old — making it Australia’s oldest known in-situ rock painting.

We used a pioneering radiocarbon dating technique on 27 mud wasp nests underlying and overlying 16 different paintings from 8 rock shelters. We found paintings of this style were produced between 17,000 and 13,000 years ago.




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Our work is part of Australia’s largest rock art dating initiative. The project is based in the Kimberley, one of the world’s premier rock art regions. Here, rock shelters have preserved galleries of paintings, often with generations of younger artwork painted over older work.

By studying the stylistic features of the paintings and the order in which they were painted when they overlap, a stylistic sequence has been developed by earlier researchers based on observations at thousands of Kimberley rock art sites.

They identified five main stylistic periods, of which the most recent is the familiar Wanjina period.

Styles in rock art

The oldest style, which includes the kangaroo painting we recently dated, often features life-sized animals in outline form, infilled with irregular dashes. Paintings in this style are said to belong to the “Naturalistic” stylistic period.

The ochre used is an iron oxide in a red-mulberry colour. Unfortunately, no current scientific dating method can determine when this paint was applied to the rock surface.

A different approach is to date fossilised insect nests or mineral accretions on the rock surfaces that happen to be overlying or underlying rock art pigment. These dates provide a maximum (underlying) or minimum (overlying) age range for the painting.

Our dating suggests the main period for Naturalistic paintings in the Kimberley spanned from at least 17,000 to 13,000 years ago.

The oldest known Australian rock painting

Very rarely, we’ll find mud wasp nests both overlying and underlying a single painting. This was the case with the painting of the kangaroo, made on the low ceiling of a well-protected Drysdale River rock shelter.

We were able to date three wasp nests underlying the painting and three nests built on top of it. With these ages, we determined confidently the painting is between 17,500 and 17,100 years old; most likely close to 17,300 years old.

The 17,300 year old painting of a two-metre long kangaroo can be found on the ceiling of a Kimberley rock shelter.
Damien Finch. Illustration by Pauline Heaney

Our quantitative ages support the proposed stylistic sequence that suggests the oldest Naturalistic style was followed by the Gwion style. This style featured paintings of decorated human figures, often with headdresses and holding boomerangs.

From animals and plants to people

Research we published last year shows Gwion paintings flourished about 12,000 years ago — some 1,000-5,000 years after the Naturalistic period.

This map of the Kimberley region in Western Australia shows the coastline at three distinct points in time: today, 12,000 years ago (the Gwion period) and 17,300 years ago (the earlier end of the known Naturalistic period).
Illustration by Pauline Heaney, Damien Finch

With these dates, we can also partially reconstruct the environment in which the artists lived 600 generations ago. For example, much of the Naturalistic period coincided with the end of the last ice age when the environment was cooler and drier than now.

During the Naturalistic period, 17,000 years ago, sea levels were a staggering 106 metres below today’s and the Kimberley coastline was about 300 kilometres further away, more than half the distance to Timor.

Aboriginal artists at this time often chose to depict kangaroos, fish, birds, reptiles, echidnas and plants (particularly yams). As the climate warmed, ice caps melted, the monsoon was re-established, rainfall increased and sea levels rose, sometimes rapidly.

Traditional Owner Ian Waina inspecting a painting of a kangaroo that we now know is more than 12,700 years old, based on the age of overlying mud wasp nests. INSET: an artist’s recreation of the in-situ rock painting.
Photo by Peter Veth / Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation. Illustration by Pauline Heaney.

By the Gwion period around 12,000 years ago, sea levels had risen to 55m below today’s. This would undoubtedly have prompted long-term adjustment to territories and social relations.

This is when Aboriginal painters depicted highly decorated human figures, bearing a striking resemblance to early 20th-century photographs of Aboriginal ceremonial dress. While plants and animals were still painted, human figures were clearly the most popular subject.




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Reaching into the past

While we now have age estimates for more paintings than ever before, more work is continuing to find out, more accurately, when each art period began and ended.

For example, one minimum age on a Gwion painting suggests it may be more than 16,000 years old. If so, Gwion art would have overlapped with the Naturalistic period but further dates are required to be more certain.

Moreover, it’s highly unlikely the oldest known Naturalistic painting we dated is the oldest surviving one. Future research will almost certainly locate even older works.

For now, however, the 17,300-year-old kangaroo is a sight to marvel at.


Acknowledgements: we would like to thank the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, the Australian National Science and Technology Organisation, Rock Art Australia and Dunkeld Pastoral Co for their collaboration on this work.The Conversation

Damien Finch, Postdoctoral Researcher, The University of Melbourne; Andrew Gleadow, Emeritus Professor, The University of Melbourne; Janet Hergt, Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor, The University of Melbourne, and Sven Ouzman, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology and Centre for Rock Art Research + Management, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Oral testimony of an Aboriginal massacre now supported by scientific evidence



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A cross was erected during the 1996 remembering ceremony of the Sturt Creek massacre.
Pam Smith, Author provided

Pamela Smith, Flinders University and Keryn Walshe, South Australian Museum

For almost 100 years, the Aboriginal people of the Kutjungka Region in southeast Kimberley, Western Australia, have reported through oral testimony and art how many of their ancestors were killed in a massacre.

Until now, their evidence has been the only record of this event. No written archives, including police records, have been found.

But we are part of a team that has now uncovered physical evidence of human intervention at the massacre site, comprising highly fragmented burnt bone. The results of our study were published in October’s Forensic Science International journal.


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We believe our results go some way to providing public recognition of this atrocity. It also gives a model that can be used at other similar massacre sites in the search for evidence to verify the oral testimonies of Aboriginal people.

The Sturt Creek Massacre: the full undated painting by artists Launa Yoomarri and Daisy Kungah under direction of Clancy and Speiler Sturt. The Aboriginal prisoners are chained between two trees. The four figures (two left and two right) hold guns. The footsteps end at the well and goat yard, and both contain fragmented bone. The white line and black stones on either side of the creek, Sturt Creek, represent the ‘milky’ coloured water of Sturt Creek and the black stone along the banks are what Daisy Kungah described as purrkuji, the jupilkarn (cormorants) in the dreamtime.
Kuningarra School, Billiluna Aboriginal Community, Western Australia., Author provided

The massacre at Sturt Creek

Tjurabalan, or Sturt Creek, provides water for life to flourish in this desert margin. The surrounding landscape is harsh, with pale green spinifex set against the deep red of the soil.

This is a terminal river system ending in Paruku, or Lake Gregory. Both the river and lake are places of spiritual significance to the Walmajarri and Jaru people, owners of the Tjurabalan Native Title claim.

Map showing the location of Sturt Creek Station and the study area on Sturt Creek, southeast Kimberley Region, Western Australia.
Robert Keane, Spatial Systems Analyst, Flinders University, Author provided

It was here, during the early years of the 20th century, that an unknown number of Aboriginal people were killed in at least three massacres reported in either oral testimonies or archival documents.

These events include one on Sturt Creek Station, where an adult man and his son escaped – it is their report that is recounted today by the descendants of those killed.

Dr Keryn Walshe (right) talking to members of the descent group at the massacre site.
Pam Smith, Author provided

We were asked by the Kimberley Land Council to search for archival evidence of the massacre on Sturt Creek Station and to record the site. In 2009 a group of descendants took us, both archaeologists, to the massacre site.

Colleagues from CSIRO Land and Water, Flinders University and the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science, Adelaide, also collaborated through the Kimberley Frontier Archaeology Project at Flinders University.

The search for evidence

Oral testimonies and paintings record that many Aboriginal people were shot and their bodies burnt. The number killed is not known.

The descendants reported that the massacre took place following the well-documented murder of two white men at Billiluna Station in 1922, and the subsequent police search for their killers.

But the search for written evidence of this massacre in the documents, diaries and newspapers of white people failed to find a reference, apart from a police diary with missing entries for four days.

One of ten scrapes made in the dry stone wall enclosure. Scrapes into the loose top soil revealed burnt bone, all highly fragmented and embedded in burnt soil.
Pam Smith

Two scatterings of burnt bone fragments were identified within a short distance of each other. All had been weathered in the harsh desert conditions for more than 90 years and all bone fragments were small, less than 20mm by 20mm.

Bone fragment No 2 from the Sturt Creek site.
Author provided

Proving that the bones were of human origin, based on the few samples our team was permitted to collect, was challenging. Two bone fragments from a human skull were identified; the challenge then was to identify evidence of an intense fire.

This evidence was provided through X-ray diffraction analyses that determined the temperatures at which the fire burnt and the length of time.

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Maintaining a fire of such high temperatures over many hours using timber as fuel must have involved human intervention and an intention to destroy the bones beyond recognition.

This was not a traditional hearth fire, as later experiments demonstrated, nor were Indigenous artefacts or cultural material found.

An objective of our study was to demonstrate that scientific research at massacre sites can verify the oral testimonies of Aboriginal people. We believe this was achieved at Sturt Creek.

Recognition of a massacre

Many people, both Aboriginal and white, lost their lives on the Australian frontier, but in most documented massacres it was Aboriginal people who were killed.

Scholars of Australian frontier history have argued the deaths of Aboriginal people should be acknowledged without political prejudice as grave injustices. Others have argued the many reported massacre events in Australia were fabricated.


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This debate is now known as the “History Wars”, and are generally views expressed by non-Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people, particularly the descendants of those killed, still bear the pain of these past conflicts.

Memorial erected at the Sturt Creek massacre site by the descendants in 2011.
John Griffiths, Author provided

They know that grandparents, aunts and uncles were absent when they were children, and deep sorrow took their place. The descendants are also the custodians of the oral testimonies recording these events.

We believe our research confronts a significant cultural boundary that – apologies aside – political leaders have failed to address. We cannot undo the past, but we can acknowledge that these events are part of both Aboriginal and white histories – they are real and Aboriginal people still suffer the pain of the past.

Of all outcomes from this project, an email from a resident of the Balgo community gave the most hope for the future. The correspondent concluded by saying thank you for “contributing to bringing some closure to my friends”.

The ConversationWe ask little more than for archaeologists and scientists working with Aboriginal descent groups to achieve a level of closure, no matter how small, for the descendants of this and similar places of atrocities committed on the Australian frontier.

Pamela Smith, Senior Research Fellow, adjunct, Flinders University and Keryn Walshe, Research Scientist in Archaeology, South Australian Museum

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Article: Australia – The Mistake Creek Massacre


The link below is to an article that takes a fresh look at the Mistake Creek Massacre that occurred in the eastern Kimberley region of Western Australia in 1915.

For more visit:
http://www.theglobalmail.org/feature/what-became-of-the-mistake-creek-massacre/651/


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