Ancient Australian Rock Art

Ancient Australian Rock ArtSome of the earliest rock art discovered in Australia, dated to thousands of years after the first humans’ landing about 60,000 years ago, depicts humans rather than animals. These first paintings proudly display clothing and decoration worn by these humans, such as tasseled headdresses, weapons, sashes, elaborate clothing, and belts. These figures are commonly drawn in a style similar to Egyptian artwork: their shoulders are broad and accentuated and their faces are depicted in profile. The purpose of this artwork could have been to represent certain individuals, either the artist themself or important members of their groups. The purpose could also have been to show off the craftsmanship of the garments these figures are wearing.



Ancient Australian Kangaroo ArtHumans aren’t the only things that artists painted during this time, however. The very oldest Australian rock art is actually of a kangaroo. Found in Western Australia, this painting has been dated to over 17,000 years old. In this same cave, paintings of lizards, snakes, and other marsupials have also been painted later. The painting found at this location has been created using ochre, which is a red pigment created from iron oxide.

Humans and animals were often painted side by side with one another, or blended into one being. Humans with animal traits seem to have been common subjects of these early artists.



About 4,000 years ago (so far as we can tell now), the rock art made by Australians began to depict humans less and animals more. Humans were given fewer adornments and their poses were less dynamic. Rather than depicted performing activities, these new humans are placed with their arms held slightly outwards, without defined facial features. The animals, however, were given much more emphasis. Over half of the rock art from this time depicts animals alone. This new type of artwork is known as Maliwawa art, after the clan of the discoverer of the first painting in this style.Ancient Australian Art


A Maliwawa painting also shows the first known depiction of a dugong, about 9,000 years ago. This painting was not found near the coast, over 50 miles away, in fact, which indicates that the artist made the journey to the ocean and then returned, or perhaps traveled for the first time, to the location where the painting was made. Marine animals in the Maliwawa rock art are rare, so travel to the ocean may have been infrequent.

If you’re interested in reading more about prehistoric rock art, read about cave art from around the world here, or read an overview of Australian art here! Also, check out an amazing archive of Australian rock art at The Bradshaw Foundation’s website.


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