Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Rock-Art and the Archaeological Record of Indigenous Settlement in Central Australia

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Rock-Art and the Archaeological Record of Indigenous Settlement in Central Australia

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article provides an overview of archaeological and radiocarbon evidence relevant to the interpretation of Central Australian rock-art. Archaeological assemblages span a period of approximately 30 000 years that was anything but static. From a combination of archaeological and palaeoenvironmental evidence it has been possible to identify trends in human occupation against a backdrop of fluctuating cycles of high and low rainfall. The implications of these trends are not limited to settlement structure and resource use but extend across all aspects of life, including social organisation, ideology and symbolic expression.


Rock-art sites constitute a relatively high proportion of recorded archaeological sites in Central Australia. In areas where the distributions of the three most common types--rock-art, artefact scatters, and deposits--have been mapped, there is a strong spatial association between them (Gunn 1995a, 1997, 2000; Thorley 1998a, 2001). In Central Australia, rock-shelters bring together in space different archaeological components and activities. Most of the excavated deposits which provide radiocarbon chronologies have come from rock-shelters, many of which have petroglyphs and/or pictograms. Of more than 20 sites in the Central Australian ranges and hinterland which have been excavated and have at least one radiocarbon age determination, over 80% are rock-shelters or have rock-shelters in their immediate vicinity. Many are formed from sandstones of middle Palaeozoic (Pzm) age, and have deposits produced by cavernous weathering. Rock-shelters thus provide a useful point from which to begin investigating relationships between deposit formation, rock-art chronology and other long-term trends in archaeological assemblages.

The sample of sites with radiocarbon chronologies that form the basis of this review is clustered in and around the MacDonnell Range bioregion (Figure 1). Although Central Australia was first occupied by about 30 000 years BP, most of the period of occupation is represented by only two rock-shelters. The limited number of sites of late Pleistocene/early Holocene age is contrasted in Central Australia by the large sample of sites--rock-shelters and open sites-of mid- to late Holocene age. While the Pleistocene is not well represented in terms of numbers of excavated deposits, the Pleistocene rock-shelters Kulpi Mara and Puritjarra have relatively large radiocarbon series, while more recent sites tend to have fewer age estimates per site.


The climate of Central Australia has varied considerably over the period of occupation. The study of early Indigenous occupation of the arid zone has been focused on the impact of increasing aridity during the last glacial maximum (LGM--Edwards & O'Connell 1995; Hiscock 1988; Smith 1989; Thorley 1998b; Veth 1989). The arid zone has at other times experienced periods of extremely high rainfall and low evaporation, which would have made Central Australia more attractive for Indigenous settlement (Hughes & Lampert 1980; Smith 1996; White & O'Connell 1982). Indigenous societies were not only geared to survival under arid conditions but had developed ways to exploit the relative abundance of water in the landscape. The archaeological record reveals as much the influence of high rainfall events as the extended dry periods normally associated with arid climates.

30 000 to 22 000 BP

Radiocarbon data from Kulpi Mara and Puritjarra indicate occupation commenced at two quite different localities in Central Australia at roughly the same time about 30000 BP. Kulpi Mara is within the MacDonnell Range bioregion, an area dominated by high ranges and the head catchments of the major rivers. Puritjarra lies 150 km north-west of Kulpi Mara in a sandstone outlier surrounded by longitudinal dunes.

The two sites also have varying conditions of water availability. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.