In a rock shelter in north west Arnhem Land, two “bilby-like” animals sitting back to back appear to float across the wall.
It is one of more than 570 stunning paintings that have been documented by a team of archaeologists and Traditional Owners, led by Paul Tacon of Griffith University.
“Bilbies are not known from Arnhem Land in historic times but we think these paintings are between 6,000 and 9,400 years of age,” Professor Tacon said.
“At that time the coast was much further north, the climate was more arid and… like what it is now in the south where bilbies still exist.”
Although the long snout and plump body look like a bilby, there’s also the possibility it could be a wallaby.
The rock art, described today in the journal Australian Archaeology, depicts many kangaroos and wallabies, as well as birds, snakes, thylacines, human and spirit figures including a half kangaroo/half man.
It also includes what appears to be the oldest known painting of a dugong.
“People had remarkable visual memories and they would tell stories through the rock art by painting unusual things that they had seen quite far away, Professor Tacon said.
But these paintings, known as Maliwawa Figures, are different to other artworks that have previously been described by archaeologists.
Outlined and filled in with red, the large naturalistic images — some of which are more than 50cm high — appear to be a “missing link” in rock art styles, Professor Tacon said.
Professor Tacon has been working with Traditional Owners, including Namunidjbuk elder and co-author Ronald Lamilami, to document paintings in the area since 2008.
“The name Maliwawa is based on part of [Ronald’s] traditional clan estate,” Professor Tacon said.
The team documented paintings from 87 sites from Awunbarna (Mount Borradaile) and Namunidjbuk lands near the Wellington Range.
A shift in styles
Arnhem Land is home to thousands of rich art galleries that contain many different types of art.
While it is incredibly difficult to date rock art, it appears that the Maliwawa figures sit between two major styles.
They were often found painted over one style known as dynamic figures and under a more recent style known as X-ray paintings.
Dynamic figures, which are very similar to the Gwion Gwion paintings of the Kimberley dated to 12,000 years ago, are often depicted in ceremonial headdress or hunting.
“Dynamic figures race across shelter walls, whereas the Maliwawa are more static and sometimes appear to be floating or bending over and grabbing things,” Professor Tacon said.
X-ray paintings, which started to appear about 4,000 years ago, are often created in multiple colours and are filled with fine lines and details of internal organs.
But there are also some similarities.
Many of the Maliwawa human figures, most of which are either male or genderless, wear headdresses that are similar to dynamic figures.
And some Maliwawa animals have rudimentary X-ray features.
In many cases, the human figures are seen with animals such as kangaroos, which may suggest a ceremonial element to the art form.
“One of my favourites is of this huge Maliwawa figure [in the image above] with a very elaborate headdress that’s reaching out to a huge kangaroo on one side of it and a large bird, probably an emu on the other side.”
In between the kangaroo and the human is a therianthrope — a being with the head of a kangaroo and the body of a human.
“It’s almost like there’s a story of transformation from the original kangaroo ancestors to part kangaroo/part human beings to human beings,” Professor Tacon said.
People, animals or spirits
Arnhem Land is one of the world’s great rock art regions, said Bruno David, a rock art expert at Monash University, who was not involved in the work.
“While there are possibly hundreds of thousands of paintings in Arnhem Land only a small proportion fit into classic styles identified by archaeologists,” Professor David said.
He said paintings recorded by the team did appear to be a discrete style that reflected a change in art styles, but we needed to be careful about interpreting them.
“We can’t tell from the art itself without access to the artist, or other people from the culture from which the art comes,” he said.
“While there’s something that looks like a bilby to us, it could be the convention of the day that wallabies were painted with thin ears rather than wider ears.”
We also don’t know whether the animals and figures depict everyday scenes or are more figurative.
“In recent rock art we know many of the human shapes and animal shapes are not necessarily people or animals … some of them may be particular kinds of dreaming beings.”
“What is important is these are meaningful to people today.”
Professor David said projects like this where archaeologists and Traditional Owners worked closely together to document rock art were very important.
“The rock art of Arnhem Land is fading or slowly disintegrating through time and once it’s gone, the old art will be gone forever,” he said.
“This kind of research … can be part of caring for country, looking after the art both for its documentation, and identifying where specific attention is needed to preserve it for future generations.”