Archaeologists have uncovered a previously undescribed style of Aboriginal rock art across an 80-mile stretch of northern Australia’s Arnhem Land. A total of 570 paintings were identified, depicting long-extinct creatures and extraordinary relationships between humans and animals.
Ranging from 6,000 to 9,400 years old, ‘Maliwawa Figures’ are believed to be the missing link in the history of Aboriginal art. Senior Traditional Owner Ronald Lamilami worked closely with the archaeology team and even gave the new style its name during the 12-year-long research project.
“We came across some curious paintings, that are unlike anything we’d seen before,” explained Paul SC Taçon, director of the Place, Evolution and Rock Art Heritage Unit at Griffith University.
He added: “most Maliwawa Figures are in accessible or visible places at low landscape elevations rather than hidden away, or at shelters high in the landscape. This suggests they were meant to be seen, possibly from some distance.”
Many artworks present unusually peaceful relationships between humans and animals, with only one showing a hunting scene. “Animal-human relationships appear to be central to the artists’ message,” Taçon noted in the journal Australian Archaeology. “The artists are clearly communicating aspects of their cultural beliefs, with an emphasis on important animals and interactions between humans and other humans or animals.”
Long-extinct creatures also crop up in the rock art, including three extremely rare depictions of bilby-type creatures and the oldest-known representation of a marine mammal called the dugong.
According to Taçon, the paintings provide a remarkable insight into the lives of Aboriginal people at the time. “During this period of six to nine thousand years ago, there was global warming, sea levels were rising, so it was a period of change for these people and rock art may be associated with telling some of the stories of change, and also trying to come to grips with it.”
Although there are as many as 100,000 rock art sites in Australia alone, even in 2020 it is clearly still possible to make new discoveries in the field.
“We must not allow Australia’s abundance of rock art to lead to a national ambivalence towards its appreciation,” implored Taçon alongside Sally May, Senior Research Fellow at Griffith University. “The Maliwawa Figures demonstrate how much more we have to learn from Australia’s early artists. And who knows what else is out there waiting to be found.”