The Rock-Art of Central Australia: An Overview

By Gunn, Rg | Australian Aboriginal Studies, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

The Rock-Art of Central Australia: An Overview

Gunn, Rg, Australian Aboriginal Studies

Abstract: Central Australia has long been recognised as containing a regionally distinct suite of rock-art; its character has, however, still to be adequately defined. The rock-art exhibits a range of techniques, with each technique having its own distinctive motif repertoire. Three techniques dominate: paintings, stencils, and peckings. The paintings and peckings contain the greatest range of motif types, with the paintings dominated by circles and other abstract elements (U-shapes, C-shapes, dots, bars), and macropod- and emu-track types. Peckings consist of three temporal subgroups: early horizontal panels, intermediary vertical panels, and recent horizontal panels. The peckings are dominated by animal tracks, circles and lines, and in some areas human figures with small numbers of large animals and anthropomorphs. Human hands dominate the stencils, with a small number of object-stencils. The early pecked repertoire is fairly consistent across the region, while the later peckings and painted motifs tend to show a degree of variation with local concentrations of particular motif types. A distinction between the rock-art of the Arrandic and that of the Western Desert language areas is emerging. Limited evidence suggests a tentative chronology from the Pleistocene to the present.


Rock-art has been recorded throughout most of the ranges of Central Australia (Figure 1). Since the first recording over 100 years ago, Central Australian rockart has become well known for its distinctive nonfigurative style. (1) The pioneering work of Spencer and Gillen has been little developed, however, and their ethnographically derived divisions remain the most significant contribution to date (Gunn 2000a). It is also clear that much of the region's rock-art has not been adequately documented and many details have yet to be examined (Gunn 1995, 2000b, 2003a; Ross 2003). The most comprehensively documented sites are within 200 km of Alice Springs, although, even within this radius, sites exist that have not been recorded adequately. An overview of the emerging pattern of Central Australian rock-art is presented here.


Approximately 500 sites have been recorded as containing about 28000 pictograms and 12000 petroglyphs. However, quantified data are available only from some 30 site complexes incorporating some 600 sites throughout the region (Tables 1 and 2, Figure 1). These are expected to reflect the major trends across the region.

It is important to note that most rock-art sites are still of significance to the local Aboriginal custodians, because they are at places of religious importance (Gunn 1997c, 2003a). (2) Those few sites that no longer retain such significance are acknowledged by custodians to reflect a loss of traditional knowledge rather than being exceptions to the rule.

Central Australia is the set of discontinuous ranges isolated from the periphery of the continent by a series of extensive sandy deserts (see Figure 1). It covers an area of approximately 700 x 1000 km. The geology is complex, with a central band of east-west trending quartzite ranges bordered to the north and south by sandstone ranges. Arkose and granite ranges outcrop in the far south-west and there is an area of heavy mineralisation to the east. Rock-art sites have been recorded in all stone types, although they are rare in the quartzite and mineralised belts (Table 3). (3)

Central Australia has an arid environment, with hot summers and cold winters. The average annual rainfall is 250 mm; however, the precipitation varies greatly and, while prolonged droughts are common, severe floods occur every few decades. In all years evaporation well exceeds rainfall; surface water is generally scarce, and permanent waters and semi-permanent reserves that last for more than a few days were (and are) greatly valued by the local inhabitants. While occupation tends to have been concentrated around the larger semi-permanent waterholes (Smith 1988, 1993; Veth 1989, 2000; Thorley 1998a, b), all sizeable water reserves are of religious significance. …

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