Saturday, 11 July 2009

Rock Art at Kakadu

There is estimated to be around 1 million pieces of Rock Art throughout Kakadu and Arnhem Land, some of it dating back 20,000 years or more and much of it is in areas which are out of bounds to non aboriginals or are kept secret within tribes. Throughout the park however are certain sites where non aboriginals are allowed to go and wonder.

The National Parks Service provide a number of talks on aspects of Aboriginal life including the landscape and how it has evolved, scrub and animal control, surviving on bush tucker, the history and usage of rock art etc etc. We have attended nine during the past two days and therefore are somewhat overloaded with knowledge.

Rock Art

Anbangbang Gallery

If you expand the above, you will see a clear set of images at the top (relatively new) and a fainter set at the bottom. This is because people often add to wall paintings, paint over certain categories of painting or refresh them. Paintings are used to tell stories, educate children, preserve history and more.

In order to know what a painting says, you have to hear it from the people who painted it or from their descendents. They also might only tell you what they feel you are allowed to know and keep some aspects to themselves. To complicate matters further, different tribes have different stories for the same pictures.

Using the key below, the story we were given was:

Key to Anbangbang Paintings

Number 1 is Namarrgon the “Lightning Man” who is responsible for lightning during storms. He wears his lightning as a band around

Namarrgon - Lightening Man

him connecting his arms,legs and hands and he uses the stone axes on his knees, elbows and head to split the dark clouds and in doing so creates thunder and lightening. He came to Kakadu with his wife Barrginji (Number 2 relatively clear in the picture below) looking for a place to live and now lives at a place called “Lightning Dreaming” which is not too far from this painting. Their children are the grasshoppers which appear throughout the park just as the storms start to break.


Narmarndjolg and his sister broke the tribal incest (or relationship) laws on the rock ledge above the gallery where this painting is (incest and sister do not necessarily mean the same thing as they do to the rest of the world – more on this later). When he was found out, the tribe decided that this was so serious a crime that he had to be put to death. So they bound him hand and foot, tied him to a tree and put kindling wood around his feet which they then set fire to. The fire however crept up the trunk and whilst burning Narmarndjolg, also burnt through the bonds which tied him to the tree and he was able to escape. He ran to the Anbangbang billabong nearby in order to bathe his burn blisters and jumped into the billabong. When he rose to the surface he found that he had turned into a Crocodile and the bumps which you see today on a crocodile’s back are Narnarndjolg’s burn blisters. The lesson then goes “so children, if you break our relationship laws, the same thing could happen to you”.

The kinship laws are extremely complicated (to anyone other than an aboriginal) but an elementary explanation of them would say: at birth every aboriginal gets a moiety, a given name, a skin name, and a tribe (you also get a totem but that is not relevant to relationships). The combination of these determines whom you are allowed to marry and therefore whom you are not allowed to have a relationship with (hence incest). These laws also dictate whom you are allowed to talk to and with whom you may “share space”. For example, post puberty brothers may not talk to sisters (and vice versa), men may not talk to their mother-in-law (and vice versa) and they may not share space with each other. This causes difficulties in school if pupils in the class are banned from talking to each other or even being in each others presence.

Family responsibilities however remain and in fact become more demanding - a man is responsible for the well being of his mother-in-law, grandchildren for their grandparents etc and the concept of the family applies outside of the western “blood family”. Hence western society does not understand the aboriginal society (and vice versa).

Family Group Left

This part of the picture is of a family group on the way to some ceremony. The two women on the right of the group are said to be breast feeding – indicated by white marks on their bosoms (expand the picture and you may see them).

Nabubulwinjbul (eats women after strinking them with a Yam) 

This is a picture of the spirit Nabulwinjbulwinj who is a dangerous spirit who eats females after striking them with a yam. That bulwinj is repeated in the name indicates power or size. Similarly, powerful things are

Contact Art - Gun   

enlarged in pictures. and in the above “contact art”, so called because it was drawn after contact had started between Europeans and aboriginals, the gun is oversized because if it is pointed at a buffalo, there is a loud noise and the buffalo falls down dead – therefore it must be powerful.

Artists would often draw over earlier pieces of art or draw their picture in a handy spare space hence you get totally unrelated bits of art appearing together. This piece of contact art shows a man with a pipe and next to it, a turtle

Man with Pipe - contact art

with the tasty bits shown in yellow.

Kangaroos obviously feature often in pictures because they are food and hunters would have drawn pictures of them to indicate that kangaroos are present in the area or just to celebrate the fact that they had killed one. The first picture below is a hunter with a spear killing a kangaroo, the others show different styles of drawing

Kangaroo and Hunter with Spear

Kangaroo showing edible bits 

a life-size picture of a kangaroo

Kangaroo (Lifesize)

Pictures are also drawn to illustrate information - the picture below shows the edible parts of the Guilubirr (Saratoga Fish)

Guiluibirr - Saratoga Fish

this one shows that you must break the back of a red mullet when you have caught one because otherwise it will wriggle back into the water when your back is turned

Mullet with back broken

or to record social activities such as Aboriginal dancing.

Aboriginal Dancing

A Thylacine - now extinct but living in Kakadu at least 4000 years ago


Some art has been drawn by the spirits or by the “First People” who created the landscape and all it contains. Garranga’rreli visited Kakadu as “The Rainbow Serpent” and painted this picture to record her visit. She is an important spirit to female aboriginals and much about her is not told to men.


The picture below of a sorcery figure was drawn by a Mimi Spirit. Mimi Spirits are tall and thin and put painting in unlikely places. They simply lift the rocks down, paint them and then put them back (in this case on the roof of the cave). They are invisible to most people but they taught Aboriginal people to paint many of their traditional designs.

Mimi Spirit Drawing

Other bits of art are simply nice – this fish

Fish 1

or this long necked turtle

Long necked turtle 

We were also shown wall painting within a “school room” where the story contained within the wall paintings related to the effects of not obeying tribal law.

There is no doubt in our minds that Aboriginal Art is extremely sophisticated in its concepts and usage. It has evolved over the past 50,000 years and always reflects the issues of the period be that droughts, large mega-fauna, contact with Europeans or the issues Aboriginals now have with the wider Australian society. Also it is used not only to record what has happened but also to teach, to pass on beliefs and to reflect issues in Aboriginal society.

We finished this phase of our stay at Jabiru by going to Ubirr and seeing the sunset over the wetlands. This scene was used in the first Crocodile

Sunset at Ubirr

Dundee movie and was mainly responsible for introducing the beauty of Kakadu to a world wide audience.

A very interesting few days.

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