Dating the Dreaming: Extinct Fauna in the Petroglyphs of the Pilbara Region, Western Australia

By Mulvaney, Ken | Archaeology in Oceania, April 2009 | Go to article overview
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Dating the Dreaming: Extinct Fauna in the Petroglyphs of the Pilbara Region, Western Australia

Mulvaney, Ken, Archaeology in Oceania


Examples of striped marsupial depictions have been reported from both the coastal and inland Pilbara. Many are regarded as images of the thylacine, an animal that disappeared from mainland Australia some 3000-4000 years ago. Also observable in the rock art is the 'fat-tailed macropod', a distinctive rendition of a marsupial with an extremely thick tail. Recent investigations in the Tom Price area and on the Burrup Peninsula confirm that both motifs pertain to the more ancient rock art corpus. Restricted artistic variation within the depiction of these two species confirms the trend to naturalistic style within animal subjects and suggests a extensive, culturally cohesive, artistic tradition across the Pilbara during the Pleistocene and early Holocene.

At two specific locations, aspects of the rock art may be explained in terms of contemporary oral traditions and cultural practices, affording one way of placing temporal parameters on these early graphic traditions. I argue that the rock art is not just representational; that it communicates mythological narratives and behavioural traits, which have a deep antiquity to the Dreaming of more than just a few thousand years.

Keywords: Rock art, Pilbara, extinct fauna, thylacine, fat-tailed macropod


Investigations in Australia have identified significant material cultural changes in the archaeological record from before 5000 years ago, with increasing developments within the last few thousand years. Introduction of the dingo, appearance of microliths and pressure-flaking techniques, are but some of these innovations that appear within the archaeological record. Explanations of these innovations are linked to adoption of expedient, risk minimisation strategies or reflect development in social and economic complexity (David et al. 2006; Hiscock 1994; Lourandos 1997). Archaeological debate has focused on the timing and implications of these changes. More importantly may be the evolution of the socio-religious systems of the inhabitants of this country.

Holocene changes in technology are thought to be concurrent with the development of particular cultural systems (Gibbs and Veth 2002; McBryde 1992). Aspects of this cultural organisation include ritual gatherings and exchange systems linked to development of the particular totemic geographic and Dreaming kinship-based structures. It has been assumed that the appearance of certain artefacts, such as backed artefacts, geometric microliths and the tula adze in areas like the Pilbara are concurrent with changing cultural systems. Data from excavations throughout the Hamersley Range (inland Pilbara) point to the introduction of such in the early second millennium BC.

The lack of definitive dating of rock art has limited its application in this debate (McBryde 1992: 221). However, the apparent trend toward more localised rock art style provinces, including the notion of territorial markers, is held as evidence of the development of social complexity and increasing population density (Gibbs and Veth 2002: 12; McDonald 2005; Morwood 2002; Smith 1996). Certainly the rock art of the Pilbara displays regional variation and particular stylistic traditions, although a temporal handle on this is still being developed (Dix 1978; McCarthy 1962; McDonald and Veth 2005; 151-7; McNickle 1984; Wright 1968; however see Bednarik 2002). During excavations at Skew Valley, located toward the southern end of the Burrup Peninsula (coastal Pilbara), five pieces of engraved rock were recovered. Radiocarbon age determinations provide minimum dates of 3700BP for a group of side profile human figures, 2700BP for simple stick figures and 2600BP for a "coiled snake" (Lorblanchet 1992: 41). This shell midden excavation provides the only firm dates for rock art in the Pilbara. Other chronological indicators include an assumed shift to marine species depiction in the rock art, a circumstance tied to changing ecology linked to the marine transgression, c.

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Dating the Dreaming: Extinct Fauna in the Petroglyphs of the Pilbara Region, Western Australia


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