Aboriginal 20,000 years earlier - Kimberley Rock Art Suggests

Kimberly Cave Art

It has been commonly thought that Aborigines most likely populated the Australian continent around 50,000 years ago, by people from the areas we now know as Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Recent evidence has emerged in the form of ancient Kimberley Rock Art that suggests that this may have been more like 70,000 years...

   The work of Professor Stephen Oppenheimer, published in the "Journey of Mankind Genetic Map", suggests that around seventy thousand years ago the ancestors of the Australian Aboriginal would have stood on the shores of South East Asia, and without a doubt they would have observed the smoke from distant bush fires caused by lightning on a land that had not yet been reached. With fluctuating sea levels, he shows how there was a window of opportunity to get to Australia between sixty-five and seventy thousand years ago - by boat!

Ancient Kimberley Rock Art

The painting below (Kimberley Rock Art) of a four-man canoe is quite possibly the world’s oldest boat painting and is located at a site in the Kimberley near other rock drawings. Significantly, another drawing depicts a long line of twenty-six or more antlered, four-legged animals standing along with a simple, single base-line - deer.  

Rock Painting of a boat

Deer of any kind have never been part of Australia’s fauna. To have depicted deer, the artist would, therefore, have had to voyage across the Timor Strait. Very likely the species of deer depicted in the painting is the Sambar, small herds of which still exist in Borneo, but which may well have been more widespread across the then sub-continental Southeast Asia, at the time of the Ice Age. The remote coastline of northwestern Australia was probably the first landing site on this continent, as small groups of Aboriginals crossed by boat from Timor up to 70,000 years ago.

Rock Drawing of Deer

"The Journey of Mankind Genetic Map" puts forward a strong case to prove when this event occurred, what early settlers did on reaching the Kimberley region; at some point, they began to decorate the red sandstone rocks with exquisite and detailed rock art, now known as the Gwion Gwion or Bradshaw paintings. Wandjina paintings, rock art of a very different style, are also endemic to this area. The number of rock art sites in the Kimberley region has been estimated to be over 100,000 in number, but only a fraction of these have been recorded. 

How was the Kimberley rock art made?

Rock art is made by:

  • applying paint to rock, especially rock shelters where people lived and conducted ceremonies
  • engraving or cutting into the rock
  • applying blobs of beeswax and spinifex resin to rock to make images and patterns
  • making marks on the stone.

People also arranged stones in the landscape to make symbolic ‘stone arrangements’. People even scraped burnt earth to make images.

Why has it lasted so long?

Kimberley rock art is mostly painted with different kinds of ochre that bond incredibly well with the sandstone, lasting hundreds, thousands and even tens of thousands of years. Human vandalism is limited because of the remoteness of most sites. Indigenous Rangers work hard on ‘Healthy Country’ plans in collaboration with archaeologists to ensure rock art sites are well managed.

How many rock art sites are there?

No one knows exactly how many sites there are. Several thousand sites have already been recorded, but it is estimated that there are tens of thousands more, mostly in rock shelters but also on flat rock expanses, on large boulders – anywhere there is a substantial body of rock.

What does Kimberley rock art mean to Aboriginal People?

The sites of rock art are very important to Aboriginal People in the Kimberley because they are records made by their direct ancestors. Many of the sites are considered sacred because of the ceremonies that have been carried out in those places.

How traditional owners interact with the rock art varies from site to site and community to community. It is sometimes difficult for traditional owners to get to the sites of rock art that are in very remote regions.


Brent Narbey
Brent Narbey
: 16 Dec 2017 (Last updated: 13 Jun 2019)

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