Rock art clarifies demise of pre-Aboriginal culture

U. QUEENSLAND (AUS) — Ancient rock art suggests a 1,500-year-long mega-drought may have been responsible for the disappearance of a pre-historic culture that predates present day Aboriginal people.

Researchers made the discovery while investigating rapid climate change and its catastrophic impacts that occurred in the remote Kimberley region of northwest Australia around 5,500 years ago.

“This seems to coincide with the collapse of one culture until the climate adjusted to a level similar to what we see today and another took its place,” says Hamish McGowan, associate professor in the School of Geography, Planning, and Environmental Management at the University of Queensland.


As reported in the American Geophysical Union Journal, the region is home to one of the world’s largest collections of rock art with two distinctive styles known as Gwion (Bradshaw) and Wandjina. The Gwion paintings date back at least 17,000 years, with the most recent extending to around 7,000 years ago, while the Wandjina paintings start around 4,000 years ago and continue to this day.

Until now the gap before the first Wandjina rock art appeared was unexplained.

“Our research shows that the likely reason for the demise of the Gwion artists was a mega-drought spanning approximately 1,500 years, brought on by changing climate conditions that caused the collapse of the Australian summer monsoon,” McGowan says.

A number of factors appear to have amplified the effects of the drought, such as a change in land surface condition and an increase in dust particles in the atmosphere, which caused a weakening or failure of monsoon rains.

“This confirms that pre-historic aboriginal cultures experienced catastrophic upheaval due to rapid natural climate variability, and current abundant seasonal water supplies may fail again if significant changes to the climate occur,” McGowan says.

Following the mega-drought, Wandjina painters appear to have moved into the area when the climate again became more favorable about 4,000 years ago.

This research supports studies conducted elsewhere in Australia that show rapid changes in climate underpinned environmental stresses on prehistory Aboriginal populations, McGowan says.

“This is contrary to the conventional view that Australian Aboriginals lived a highly sustainable hunter-gatherer existence in which their knowledge of the landscape meant they adapted to climate variability with little impact.”

The research was sponsored by the Kimberley Foundation Australia, a not-for-profit organization researching, preserving and promoting the rock art of the Kimberley.

Source: University of Queensland