As modern humans left Africa sometime between 100,000 and 70,000 years ago, their descendants colonised southern Asia in their eastward march towards Southeast Asia and Australia. Between 55,000 and 45,000 years ago, having arrived at the Pacific Ocean’s western seaboard, the first Australians arrived following a series of sea crossings across the islands of Southeast Asia.
At that time Australia was populated by giant marsupials – the megafauna – that were soon to become extinct through landscape change and possibly direct hunting.
With the arrival of people in Australia came practices of landscape management in the form of ‘firestick farming’ and the division of the landscape into territories recognised by neighbouring social groups. With this came the development of distinctive cultural expressions, the most visual of these being the rock paintings, which changed through the ages as ancestral Indigenous cultures changed.
Traces of life through the ages
The Jawoyn people are the Indigenous tribal owners and co-managers of Jawoyn lands in western Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. This land stretches over 50,000 km² and comprises land trust areas, freehold and National Parks encompassing most notably:
- Nitmiluk (previously known as Katherine Gorge National Park)
- The Gunlom area of southern Kakadu National Park
- The town of Katherine
- Manyallaluk (Eva Valley)
In June 2006, the Jawoyn Association made an astonishing discovery during a routine aerial survey on the Arnhem Land plateau. They spied an unusually large rockshelter, landed the helicopter and on walking into the open cave, found themselves at a stunning gallery with hundreds of rock paintings. Anthropological work with senior Elders Wamud Namok and Jimmy Kalarriya enabled the Jawoyn to learn the name of the site – Nawarla Gabarnmang. The two men had both visited when they were children, and told of it being an important site where people camped en-route to ceremony in Jawoyn country.
These Elders identified the Jawoyn clan Buyhmi as the traditional owners of the site. When Buyhmi traditional owner and Elder Margaret Katherine was taken to the site, she cried out to her ancestors and wept for a place and family she had never known.
In spring 2010, Margaret Katherine took the extraordinary step of inviting a team of the world’s top archaeologists and rock art experts to explore the cave and its paintings. This undertaking has been entrusted to an international team led by eminent Monash University archaeologist Dr Bruno David. In October 2010 a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between Monash University and the Jawoyn Association Aboriginal Corporation to ensure a spirit of mutual respect between the parties and appreciation of country.
This project is a request from the Jawoyn Association, who would like the sites of their ancestors, including the rock art, documented and investigated for what it can tell us about the history of their culture. Connecting Country aims to present the Jawoyn community with renewed opportunities to engage with their own historical places at a time of rapid global change, where community-run cultural eco-tourism allows Jawoyn clans to renew connections with remote ancestral places, maintain the integrity of cultural sites through appropriate visitation and engagement, inform the world about Indigenous traditions in a culturally appropriate way, and to create community employment as an opportunity to ‘look after country’ – that is, to help maintain the health of ancestral places by continued visitation, engagement and the sharing of knowledge.
This term is used by Aboriginal people across Australia. It refers to all aspects of one’s ancestral homeland. Country is the lands and waters created by the ancestors. It is rich in history, customs and the laws of how to look after the land – ‘looking after country’ – instilled in particular places by the founding ancestors at the beginning of time. Through those ancestral connections, people today think of country as the place where the heart resides: country is one’s daily and spiritual home; for those who live on country, where children are raised, responsibilities lived, and futures unfold with the blessing of the ancestors who continue to reside, felt but unseen among the features of the landscape. For those who don’t live on country, it is the place where one longs to return to unbreakable ancestral connections, where callings are forever felt.
Jawoyn people speak of country in the same way that one speaks about human relatives. People visit country and listen to country; sing and dance for country and cry for it. One worries greatly about country and speak longingly for places in one’s own country; places that may not be able to be visited because they are now too remote from where one lives.
People feel for country and in return country hears and thinks and feels about its human relatives. Because of the ancestral spirit-forces that make it what it is, country can accept or reject, be sad or happy — just as people can be with one another.
In a rapidly changing world, the challenge for Indigenous communities across Australia is how to look after country in a culturally appropriate way when opportunities are limited, and when people wish to make connections between personal experiences and the global without compromising the integrity of their own cultural ways. Connecting Country is a step to resolving this dilemma in Jawoyn country.