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13 October 2008
Rock-art find rewrites Australian history

Arnhem Land, jutting into the Arafura Sea at the top of Australia, has always been a special place for Aboriginal people. Just how special has been reinforced by the discovery of an extraordinary collection of rock art recording life in the area for the past 15,000 years, until 50 years ago. Alongside ancient paintings of thylacines, a mammal long extinct on the mainland, are images documenting modern-day inventions - a car, a bicycle wheel, a biplane and a rifle - as well as portraits of a missionary and a sea captain.
     Scientists documenting the rock art, spread across at least 100 sites in the remote Wellington Range, say it ranks among the world's finest. It also appears to rewrite Australian history, undermining the widely held assumption that the continent was isolated and largely unvisited until the First Fleet arrived in 1788. The paintings suggest that the people of northern Australia have been interacting with seafaring visitors from Asia and Europe for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years.
     A team of scientists on an expedition to the Range recorded 81 images of ships, ranging from the vessels of Macassan traders from Sulawesi (now part of Indonesia) to dugout canoes, 19th-century British tall ships, 20th-century steamers and Japanese pearling luggers. They even found paintings of a luxury cruise ship and a World War II destroyer. The scientists surveying the paintings with the help of a local Aboriginal elder say they represent possibly the longest continuous record in the world.
     The rock art has been known about since the 1970s, when a leading expert, George Chaloupka, was taken to the area by local people. But he saw only a tiny proportion of it, and records of its whereabouts were lost. It was only recently that they were rediscovered by a doctoral student, Daryl Guse. Tacon's team, which travelled to Arnhem Land last month, was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the art. In one rock shelter alone, they found 1500 paintings. "This area is astounding. Every time we went out, we had a plan to survey a particular stretch of the range, but we could hardly move at all, because we were continually finding sites. Over a few days, we found 100 previously undocumented sites, and we've only just scratched the surface. There are hundreds, possibly thousands, of sites waiting to be revealed. This area is of World Heritage significance, and it rivals the best of any area in Australia. It's right up there with the best rock art regions of Europe, South Africa and elsewhere."
     The art contains subjects and styles not found elsewhere in Australia. Much of it consists of multiple layers applied over the millennia.
Source: NZHerald.co.nz (6 October 2008)

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