Australia in the Before Time


Ancient Indigenous art was very diverse, with different regions having distinctive styles of painting and carving. Art forms include: rock engravings; cave paintings that use the techniques of stencilling and X-ray designs; bark paintings; cross-hatched and dot paintings; wood, bone and shell carvings; engravings and incised patterns; basket weaving and matting; among others.

Aboriginal engravings known as petroglyphs were incised or chipped into the surface of rocks and generally found in arid areas. The engravings show tracks of animals, particularly emus, kangaroos, wallabies and marsupials incised as lines, circles, dots and complex patterns. The south coast of Tasmania has engravings that are thought to be the oldest and largest sites of that age in the world. Murujuga, the Burrup Peninsula in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, has hundreds of thousands of rock engravings covering an 88-square-kilometre area of land. It is one of the largest and most important collections of petroglyphs. The oldest Aboriginal rock art, found at Karolta near Olary in South Australia, has been dated at 31,500 years BP.

Rock art and cave paintings vary in the medium, technique and content used. Painting materials usually consisted of locally produced ochres, clays and charcoal. Stencilling is one of the commonest forms of painting. It uses an object like a boomerang or a human hand that has paint sprayed, using the mouth, over it to leave the outline of the object on the wall of a cave. Examples of this form of art can be found at Carnarvon Gorge in Queensland.

Aboriginal paintings depict important spirit creators, spirits or beings from local Dreamings. The Wandjina, the creator beings of Dreaming for people in the Kimberley region, and the Mimi, a spirit figure from central Australia, are represented in the art of the regions. In Stawell, Victoria, paintings of Bunjil, a major spirit figure for Aboriginal peoples of south-eastern Australia, are found on the walls of a cave now known as Bunjil's Cave.

Painting also includes the intricate X-ray styles of depicting the skeletal views of animals. Examples of these paintings are found in western Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. Some paintings depict the Macassans' ships visiting the north coast to fish for trepang (sea cucumber). White, red and yellow ochres are the commonest colours used in the cave paintings of the Kimberley, the Arnhem Land escarpment and Cape York.

An example of Aboriginal rock art in the Kimberley region of Western Australia is the Gwion Gwion figures by the Ngarinyin. The thin figures form an important part of the cosmology of the Ngarinyin people.

A snapshot of NaN

  • January
    • The Royal Society approached King George III for financial assistance to fund an expedition to observe the transit of Venus from the South Seas.

  • April
    • The ship HM Bark Endeavour (formerly the Earle of Pembroke) was commissioned by the British Royal Navy Board to undergo a voyage to the South Seas. She was to be captained by Lieutenant James Cook.

  • July
    • Cook was involved with fitting out HM Bark Endeavour while moored in Deptford.

  • August
    • Lieutenant James Cook left Plymouth Harbour for Madeira.

  • November
    • Cook wrote to the Royal Society complaining of the poor treatment he received from the Portuguese viceroy at Rio de Janeiro. The viceroy believed that Cook's real purpose was smuggling or piracy.

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