Of Lightning Brothers and White Cockatoos: Dating the Antiquity of Signifying Systems in the Northern Territory, Australia

Article excerpt

Northern Australia is one of the very few regions of the world where an established tradition of rock-art has continued and extends into present-day knowledge. Excavation of deposits under the painted surfaces allows the age of the paintings to be estimated, by linking across to these deposits and their dateable contexts. One can begin to assess the antiquity of those systems of knowledge and of 'signifying'.


A number of authors have argued that the late Holocene was a period of widespread change in Aboriginal Australia (e.g. Lourandos 1983; David 1991). Such changes may have involved a major restructuring of socio-political systems, such as the beginnings of ceremonially based, extractive networks geared to the large-scale management of resources (including eels) in western Victoria (Lourandos 1983; 1991). In north Queensland, David (1991) has argued that, during the last 3000 years or so, systems of land tenure and/or regional interaction networks may have changed. However, as far as we know, no researcher has attempted systematically to relate changes observed in the archaeological record with broader concerns relating to past belief systems. Recognizing the difficulties of such a program, we address this issue with an investigation of the archaeology of a number of locations (Yiwarlarlay, Mennge-ya and Garnawala) in what is today Wardaman country.

Wardaman country

Wardaman country is renowned archaeologically for its vast body of rock art, which to the local Wardaman people is visual proof of the Dreaming itself. To archaeologists, such paintings were created some time in the past -- they have a definable antiquity. Given their importance in Wardaman society today, and their identity as signifiers and signified of the belief system we know of as the Dreaming, investigations of their antiquity may shed important light on the beginnings of the modern belief system itself. In essence we are looking for patterns, and we begin by asking whether or not the paintings which today express the identity of the land to Wardaman people were all initially undertaken within a time-specific and identifiable time frame. If this is the case, then it is possible that we are identifying the antiquity of the modern ontological system itself, or at least its expression, largely as we know it today. Knowing which of these two options we are observing, however, may be a major archaeological problem which we may not be able to solve.

Wardaman country is located to the southwest of Katherine. Northern Territory. Wardaman people generally recognize matri-totems (the ngurlu), assign sub-section partly, though not exclusively, through the mother, and practice a matri-focal system of parent-child relationship. There exists a matrifiliative complementary relationship to land, with patri-filiation being primary.

During the recent past, Wardaman country was divided into various estates, each of which reckoned a cosmological identity with specific Dreaming beings. Some of these were travelling beings (such as Gorondolni, the Rainbow Serpent), while others concerned specific parts of the landscape only (e.g. Gandawaq, the moon, at Jalijbang). While the entire landscape thereby gained its identity and was made discontinuous by its affiliations with specific Dreaming beings and events, it was united into a cosmological whole by its common participation in a unified system of land and law expressed in the Dreaming. In this sense, the land is a humanized landscape (Rigsby 1981), and the way in which the various estates are broken up and inter-linked at various levels reflects the pattern of Wardaman land tenure and land use.

The land's Dreaming identities are central to the local belief system. It is in the Dreaming that Wardaman ontology is centred. Dreaming realities are expressed everywhere -- in the mountains, rivers, trees and rock outcrops. As Merlan (1989a: 4-9) notes,

The Wardaman use the word laglan 'country, place, site' (and also camp) to refer to tracts of country and places within them to which they claim attachment, as in the phrase nganinggin laglan 'my country'. …