“Our responsibilities are to so much more than the square of soil we’re digging, but to the people and the ancestors themselves”.
Dr Bruno David, Monash University.

Western Arnhem Land in northern Australia contains Australia’s oldest known Aboriginal sites and is among the richest and most spectacular rock art regions in the world. Its rock art galleries feature prominently in popular films and tourism promotions; they continue to influence artists world-wide.

Iconic notions rooted in Arnhem Land’s Aboriginal imagery – the Rainbow Serpent, X-ray art and the didgeridoo – feature prominently in the nation’s identity. Yet we know surprisingly little of this art’s age and history.

Time travellers

To address this gap in our knowledge, Connecting Country aims to date the rock art and understand its past social and environmental contexts through archaeological, geomorphological and biogeographic methods.

Thousands of rock art sites have been recently rediscovered within Jawoyn country and are awaiting detailed investigation. These sites include some with depictions of extinct animals (the Tasmanian tiger Thylacinus, possibly the giant flightless bird Genyornis, and others) and many have intact occupation deposits created when the ancestors camped at the sites, some going back more than 45,000 years.

A notable example is a cave known as Nawarla Gabarnmang – “hole in the rock” – where initial research has revealed it to be one of the oldest reliably dated Aboriginal sites in Australia at 45,000 years.

Found at the site is a piece of the world’s oldest reliably dated ground stone axe dating back to 35,000 years ago.  The age of the rock art itself remains a mystery.

Jawoyn history concerns the ancestors, the land on which they walked, and the sites in which they resided.  Finding out about the Jawoyn past requires a number of approaches, each aimed at bringing to light different aspects of Jawoyn culture and Jawoyn country.  Connecting Country consists of a variety of projects, each aimed at revealing a different aspect of Jawoyn history.

While each project will reveal new information of interest in and of itself, connecting the knowledge generated by each will enable a better appreciation of Jawoyn history and of the historical depth and complexities of Aboriginal cultures generally.

Rock art recording:

  • What do the different art styles look like?
  • How old is the art?
  • How can the geochemistry of rock surfaces reveal information on the art’s antiquity and preservation?

Archaeological excavations:

  • How old are the living sites?
  • What happened at those sites through history?
  • What kind of stone tools did people make, and how did this change through time?
  • What kinds of plants and animals did people eat?
  • How did the sediments accumulate within sites?

Ritual sites:

  • What kinds of ritual sites are there, and how do these relate to ethnographic forms?
  • How old are those ritual sites (tracking back ethnohistoric forms)?
  • What kinds of animals are represented in the bone arrangements?

The landscape:

  • What is the history of landscape features such as caves and waterholes?
  • How did vegetation communities change through time?
  • How can vegetation history inform us about the history of landscape burning by people?
  • How have local fauna changed through time (e.g. extinctions)?
  • How have the physical features of sites evolved through time?