It’s long been established that Aboriginal Art is the oldest unbroken tradition of art in the world. Through different mediums, the indigenous people of Australia found a way to communicate their ancestral ties and connection to the land they have inhabited for thousands of years.
Aboriginal rock art depicting Wandjina, Wunnumurra Gorge, The Kimberley. Photo: Graeme Churchard
The earliest confirmed artwork is 28,000 years old, a charcoal painting on a rock fragment found in the Northern Territory at the Narwala Gabarnmang rock shelter. Though not confirmed in age, rock paintings are the earliest example of Aboriginal artwork in other regions, particularly in Pilbara and Olary. These paintings are estimated to be 40,000 years old, depicting now-extinct megafauna, and later on, the historical arrival of European ships to the country.
Exciting discoveries made in 2017 suggest that indigenous people may have been in Australia as much as 80,000 years ago, bypassing previous estimates by around 15,000 years. These discoveries were made at the Madjedbebe rock shelter in Arnhem Land, which has a rich history of archeological investigation. Working in co-operation with the Mirrar Aboriginal people who reside there, thousands of artifacts were unburied, along with a stunning collection of rock art.
With over 1000 motifs at the site, the Madjedbebe rock shelter is home to an extensive array of symbols and designs, all important to the indigenous people. It’s thought that while many of the existing motifs are dated within the last 1500 years, overlap or fading could be hiding art created thousands of years ago. From ochre paintings to stencils, beeswax figures and simple drawings, many of the methods used to create art are similar to those used in the present day.
During the investigations, art materials such as ochre and ‘reflective paint substances’ were found among the oldest artifacts. This suggests use in creating ceremonial artwork, such as rock and body painting, as well as reinforcing the tradition of art as a means of communication. Proof of this human interaction with the environment demonstrates the importance of artwork as a part of Aboriginal tradition, as a way to harness totemic connection for ceremonies, detail Dreamings, and establish ancestral history.
Aboriginal Art is and always has been a language, a way to communicate, from its earliest incarnation right up until modern times. The earliest indigenous art details daily life – how the people performed rituals, the challenges they faced, what they ate, and native wildlife. Seeing this early Aboriginal Art, potentially 80,000 years old, is an exciting insight into the artistic pursuits of Aboriginal people, and tells us of their commitment to communication with each other and with the land they still inhabit to this day.