|14 July 2008
Early Australian tattoos match rock art
A new study reports that elaborate and distinctive designs on the skin of indigenous Aussies repeated characters and motifs found on rock art and all sorts of portable objects, ranging from toys to pipes. The study not only illustrates the link between body art, such as tattoos and intentional scarring, with cultural identity, but it also suggests that study of this imagery may help to unravel mysteries about where certain groups traveled in the past, what their values and rituals were, and how they related to other cultures.
"Distinctive design conventions can be considered markers of social interaction so, in a way they are a cultural signature of sorts that archaeologists can use to understand ways people were interacting in the past," author Liam Brady of Monash University's Center for Australian Indigenous Studies, said.
For the study, published in the latest issue of the journal Antiquity, Brady documented rock art drawings; images found on early turtle shell, stone and wood objects, such as bamboo tobacco pipes and drums; and images that were etched onto the human body through a process called scarification.
Brady focused his attention on a region called the Torres Strait. This is a collection of islands in tropical far northeastern Queensland. The islands lie between Australia and the Melanesian island of New Guinea. People were living in the Torres Strait as early as 9,000 years ago, when sea levels were lower and a land bridge connected Australia with New Guinea. Brady determined that within the body art, rock art and objects, four primary motifs often repeated: a fish headdress, a snake, a four-pointed star, and triangle variants. Analysis of the materials found that two basic groups - horticulturalists and hunter-gatherers - inhabited the Torres Strait during its early history.
Aboriginal people at Cape York, a peninsula close to Australia, had "a different artistic system in operation, which did not incorporate many designs from Papua New Guinea," Brady said. Based on land locations where the body art and object imagery were found, as well as the nature of the designs, Brady concludes that the Cape York residents were the hunter-gatherers, while groups in more northerly locations within Torres Strait appear to have been horticulturalists. Since imagery mixed and matched more among the early farmers, Brady concludes they enjoyed kinship links, and engaged in extensive trade, with Papua New Guinea groups. In the future, similar studies could help to identify cultural groups in other regions, while also revealing their social interactions.
Source: Discovery News (3 July 2008)
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