An Ancient Art Gallery Discovered
One of the largest Aboriginal art galleries in Australia may soon be open for visitors. But you won’t find it in a modern building—instead, in a rock shelter only accessible by helicopter. The Nawarla Gabarnmang cave, in Western Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory, holds some truly ancient and beautiful rock art. It is the oldest in Australia, and some of the oldest in the world.
In May 2011, the indigenous tribal owners of the land, the Jawoyn people, contacted a team of archaeologists and asked them to investigate the area, to find out more about their peoples’ cultural heritage. This investigation has been called the Jawoyn Homeland Project.
Led by Dr. Bruno David of Monash University, the international team of archaeologists have since found a 35,000-year-old axe, paintings of animals that went extinct over 40,000 years ago, and buried fragments of charcoal paintings. These painting fragments—unearthed by Professor Bryce Barker of the University of Southern Queensland—were only just dated, using radiocarbon dating.
Turns out, the artwork is 28,000 years old! These paintings now join with those in Chauvet and Lascaux in France and the Altamira caves of Spain, as being some of the most ancient in the world.
The Aboriginal people of Australia were the first to occupy the continent. They were semi-nomadic, usually making temporary shelters as they moved through the land. Sometimes, though, they settled in an area and made permanent shelters to live in. Over time, throughout Australia, people have discovered old campsites, rock art, tools, weapons, and human bones, which all reveal that Australia has been inhabited for a very, very long time—40,000 to 60,000 years!
Aboriginal people are the traditional owners of the land. They call the land “country.” For Aboriginal people, country is a living spirit, created by Creation and Ancestral beings in the form of animals. These beings travelled through the world, forming all the lakes and rivers, the hills and mountains, molding everything into shape, to become as it is now. Then the beings settled back into the land, becoming part of it. The land is seen as a living thing, something people can love, communicate, dance, and sing with.
The Aboriginal people passed (and continue to pass) their beliefs and traditional stories down through song, dance, and art. These artforms tell of the time when Earth and everything on it was created, a time known as the “Dreaming.” Ancient art was usually drawn or painted on the walls of caves, like the walls of the Nawarla Gabarnmang rock shelter.
The Jawoyn people now wish to turn the caves into a site for eco-tourism, where limited numbers of people will be allowed to come and view the art. They also want to preserve the art, to keep on connecting with their ancestors, over the many years to come.