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12 June 2011
Half of all Aboriginal rock art could disappear soon

While Australia has some of the world's most outstanding and abundant rock art, experts say half of it could disappear over the next 50 years unless it is better protected. Urban development, mining and vandalism - as well as erosion and other natural processes - are among threats to the art found in rock shelters, often in remote areas. Some sites have already been bulldozed, or had paintings defaced or carved out. Many Aboriginal communities have lost their connection with the art, which their ancestors looked after and retouched over generations.
     One obstacle facing conservationists is that knowledge is fragmented; no one is even sure how many sites there are, although estimates suggest up to 100,000. Academics are calling for a national database to be set up, which would enable them to document the images properly and identify those most at risk. But they need to raise A$6m , which has not yet been forthcoming. In addition, few Australians know or care much about Aboriginal rock art, according to Paul Tacon, a professor of anthropology and archaeology at Griffith University in Queensland: "A lot of people are simply not aware that this is part of our national heritage and identity; it's not just something indigenous. We want to raise awareness that these are important, special places; they are part of the Australian identity," he said.
     The oldest surviving Aboriginal art dates back 15,000 years, compared with the estimated 34,000-year-old cave paintings at Chauvet, in southern France. However, archaeologists have found evidence - including pieces of ochre, used for pigment - that Aboriginal people began producing art soon after arriving in Australia more than 45,000 years ago.
     Rock art specialists want to pinpoint Australia's top 100 sites, and then use advanced technology such as laser scanning to produce 3D digital replicas. "The art is disappearing at an alarming rate, so we need to get good records of it before it's lost," says Wayne Brennan, an archaeologist with part-indigenous heritage. Until now, archives have been kept by state and territory governments, museums, universities, national parks bodies, Aboriginal communities and individual researchers. Professor Tacon says: "It's extremely important to bring these diverse records together, because at the moment rock art research, conservation and management happen on an ad hoc basis. Some sites have been lost because people haven't realised their importance."
     Although not as old as the art at Chauvet and other European cave sites, Aboriginal rock art is considered significant because of the sheer volume of it, the powerful quality of some of the work and the fact it was created continuously over the millennia until about 20 years ago.

Edited from The Independent (11 June 2011)

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