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7 October 2011
Australia's rock art in a hard place

It takes a moment to get our eyes in, and then, leaping out of the sun-baked rocks, we spot engravings of kangaroos, dugongs and emus; turtles, birds and mythical beasts; complex geometric patterns; warriors with boomerangs; and bush turkeys. This small, unfenced valley in the north-west corner of Australia, marked by nothing more than a rusty metal sign, contains more ancient rock art than the whole of palaeolithic Europe.
     Despite these riches, the Pilbara is probably the most remote coastal region in Australia. It is as large as Spain but has just 40,000 residents and is almost unvisited by tourists. Instead, this bleak, spectacularly rugged land is devoted to a different kind of wealth: mining. A region bearing a unique record of human culture stretching back 30,000 years is now home to some of the newest settlements in Australia: air-conditioned towns humming with iron ore and offshore gas industries.
     A short drive takes us across salt flats to the peninsula and views of the 42 arid islands of the Dampier archipelago. Here, almost unheralded, lies one of the world's biggest collections of ancient art. It is estimated there are a million rock engravings on the peninsula, with 4,000 examples in Deep Gorge, where we stop to examine art created up to 30,000 years ago.
     "It is no idle boast that this is the richest area for petroglyphs anywhere in the world," says Ken Mulvaney, a cultural heritage specialist with mining company Rio Tinto and the only person with a PhD on the rock art of the archipelago. "This art is done for a number of purposes," says Mulvaney. "Some of it is just to tell stories, some is identifying your presence in the area, some is for hunting magic and some has mythological associations. We seem to have had elaborate designs from the start," says Mulvaney. "They were a highly sophisticated people. They had a better lifestyle too. It's a lovely warm climate."

Edited from Heritage Daily (5 October 2011)

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