Arnhem Land Prehistory in Landscape, Stone and Paint

By Tacon, Paul S. C.; Brockwell, Sally | Antiquity, Annual 1995 | Go to article overview

Arnhem Land Prehistory in Landscape, Stone and Paint


Tacon, Paul S. C., Brockwell, Sally, Antiquity


Arnhem Land at the end of the Pleistocene Making sense of information about the human past is one of the primary goals of archaeological research. In western Arnhem Land we may obtain information from two very different but complimentary sources, shelter walls/ceilings and shelter deposits. The region is well known for its spectacular galleries of rock-art and for its deep and extensive deposits, both of which reach back in time to considerable antiquity. The problem is that on the walls and ceilings we have lots of information from the past but few secure dates. The opposite is true of the deposits where we have sequences of generally reliable dates but very little information. There are few links between the two, and their inter-relationships are not well known. Any links between them are important because they allow better understanding of cultural changes in Arnhem Land that occurred in response to environmental transformations. Through the rock-art we are able to see how some changes were represented by prehistoric Arnhem Landers themselves. Indeed, the rock-painting record is so detailed that a wide variety of material culture and social changes can be outlined in ways that would not be possible if we were to focus solely on the scant material remains.

The Pleistocene - Holocene transgression profoundly affected ancient Arnhem Landers. During this time sea-levels rose, and lands were flooded, and the land-bridge between northern Australia and southern New Guinea was inundated. There was equally dramatic climate change, from extreme aridity to the monsoonal climate known today. During this process, indigenous peoples living throughout northern Australia had to forge new relationships to land, to people and to other species of plants and animals. Adjustments were required to increased rainfall, warmer local climates, flooding, loss of habitats, population shifts, culture contacts, and new sources of food, water and raw materials. The precise responses by specific groups in local areas may never be known, but more general responses can be modelled from evidence in the ground and painted on their rocky surrounds.

Jointly, these records allow us not only to document changes in material culture resulting from the effects of the Pleistocene - Holocene transition but also concomitant social changes. We argue that the fundamentals of Arnhem Land culture can be traced back to the end of the transition and many have their origins in it. These include a simple tool technology, elaborate kinship systems, clan estates that focus on totemic sites in the landscape, a complex belief system that features the Rainbow Serpent as a powerful metaphor and symbol, regional linguistic differentiation, and a detailed visual communication system that revolves around relationships between peoples, Ancestral Beings, other species, time-periods and landscapes.

The environmental sequence

The environment today Kakadu National Park is located 200 km east of Darwin in the `Top End' of the Northern Territory. It is situated about 12 [degrees] south of the equator in a sub-humid savannah environment. In the north it is bounded by the Van Diemen Gulf while beyond its eastern border is the former Arnhem Land reserve. The region under discussion here straddles both Kakadu and the western section of Arnhem Land (Figure 1).

This region contains a number of landforms, including floodplains, lowland plains, sandstone escarpment and the dissected Arnhem Land plateau, and five major rivers, the East Alligator, South Alligator, West Alligator, Wildman and upper Katherine Rivers (Figure 1). The Alligator Rivers floodplains, one of the major freshwater wetlands systems in Australia, include the wetlands associated with the South Alligator River, near-by East Alligator River and one of its tributaries, the Magela Creek. Altogether these wetlands cover an area of about 600 sq. km (Hope et al. 1985: 237).

The climate is markedly seasonal. …

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