Portrayed in vivid, seemingly immortal, impressions on the damp, soft surface of limestone cave walls, the world’s best known early human art provides a glimpse of the thoughts and perspectives of our Stone Age ancestors.

Deep inside the Lascaux and Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc caves of southern France, sublime images of animals give us the first insight into the intellectual sensitivity of humans far back in time, 36,000 years in the case of Chauvet Cave. The elegant use of perspective, shading and line in the paintings and engravings demonstrate sophistication; an innate ability to interpret and attach meaning to our surroundings.

Director of the Lascaux and Chauvet caves research programs Professor Jean-Michel Geneste considers both the science and humanity embodied within these ancient compositions: “When standing in front of the rock art, discovering the way they portrayed selected animals, we are in front of the images they had in their minds; looking into the spirituality of men and women long before us.”

That said, he adds there is a limit to how much can be interpreted, such as the meaning of geometric symbols that accompany the animals, or even the meaning of the animals themselves – because they are from a “dead culture”. The human link to modern times was long ago broken and lost.

This amplifies the significance of a vast rock art discovery in Arnhem Land in northern Australia, possibly created many millennia before the Lascaux and Chauvet cave art. The oldest of this art is not only a further example of the artistry of early Homo sapiens ancestors, but even more significant, says Professor Geneste, is that its human link is unbroken. This ancient art depicting what may be long extinct megafauna shows a continuous connection to the vibrant culture of present-day Aboriginal Australia. This, he says, adds an accessible cultural and spiritual dimension to the art and its meanings.

The Arnhem Land rock art is expected to rewind art history to more than 10,000 years before the earliest known art in western Europe. Already since the delicate excavations began in 2010, archaeologists have found one fragment of painting dating back 28,000 years, but they are still only scratching the surface – literally.

The research into the Arnhem Land cave art was initiated by the Northern Territory’s Jawoyn people, for whom the sites continue to accommodate the spirits of their ancestors. For this reason they needed any research to be culturally sensitive, and so approached Monash University archaeologist Dr Bruno David.

It might have seemed a straightforward assignment; to examine the rock art decorating the sandstone walls and cave ceilings in their homeland. But the scale of the project is vast. The Jawoyn homeland covers some 50,000 square kilometres in which 4300 rock art sites have already been recorded. Dr David says it has now become a lifelong commitment for him.

It is an involvement and exploration that is strictly governed by the Jawoyn’s notion of ‘country’ that intimately bonds the landscape, the people, their creation and ancestral spirit beings, and the ‘laws of the land’ established at the beginning of time itself.

Dr David says that while on one hand the antiquity of the rock art is part of the area’s archaeological record, for the Jawoyn people it embodies the presence of their ancestors.

A 35,500-year-old tool unearthed beneath a spectacular frieze of paintings at a site known as Gabarnmang is another clear link to their ancestors.

But Dr David says that while of great cultural value to the Jawoyn, the tool is limited from an archaeological perspective. For example, the artefact’s precise function remains unknown: “We can’t just use what people say today to inform us about the distant past,” he says. “The oral tradition of any culture is generally limited to between 300 and 400 years before it becomes lost in translation.”

Nonetheless, the tool represents a continuum in the Jawoyn's cultural tradition that extends back thousands of generations; an extraordinary perspective and identity for a people to possess.

Dr David believes the evidence suggests the Jawoyn have occupied their lands since Aboriginal people first arrived in Australia. While still being researched and debated, the general consensus among researchers is that it was 50,000 to 55,000 years ago.

Dr David’s team has started excavating four sites in the past two years, conscious always of the “creation and ancestral spirits” in whose presence they are working. And this cultural respect is just as carefully matched by meticulous millimetre-by-millimetre excavations. One millimetre of sediment measures about 50 years in the historical profile of the soil. Digging down just one metre transports archaeologists through 50,000 years. You would dig many metres at a western European site to reach that far back in time.

At Gabarnmang the researchers have so far excavated to a depth of 70 centimetres, and at this level have found evidence of Aboriginal occupation 48,000 years ago. With another 25 centimetres and many other parts of the cave to explore, Dr David hopes to find fallen pieces of rock art (that have come off the cave walls) dating well beyond the current finds at 28,000 years back.

“We know there are older paintings in the area because ochre crayons dated to 50,000 years ago were discovered just 30 kilometres away near the northern border of Jawoyn country in the 1980s. It’s just a matter of time before we find the paintings,” he says.

Adding weight to his expectations is the existence, about 12 kilometres to the south of Gabarnmang, of an exposed sandstone slab adorned with a painting of a large flightless bird resembling a species of Australian megafauna considered to have been extinct for 40,000 years. The image of the bird, Genyornis newtoni, raises two history re-writing alternatives: either the last of the animals, often referred to as ‘thunder birds’, survived longer than previously thought, or Aboriginal people painted the creature they were acquainted with 400 centuries ago. A third possibility, leaving history unchanged, is that the painting shows an abstract interpretation of an emu.

Rock art specialist Robert Gunn suspects Genyornis existed on Jawoyn land more recently than the fossil evidence indicates. His argument is that the degree of weathering appears inconsistent with a 40,000-year-old painting, given it has scant protection from a one-metre rock overhang. On the other hand, the painting has seeped into the sandstone and new layers of rock have developed over it, protecting it from the elements. So the evidence either way is elusive. The red ochre pigment used to paint the bird is a mixture of iron and oxygen that leaves no trace of the carbon needed to date the image, using the conventional carbon-dating method.

To overcome the problem, researchers are now searching the layers of sediment below the painting for clues. In particular, they are looking for a fragment of red ochre matched to the painting, so they can date the surrounding sediment using optically stimulated luminescence (OSL). Unlike carbon dating, which is limited to a maximum age of about 55,000 years, the OSL technique can fix dates back a million years or more.

Apart from its potential to reveal the age of the fabled bird, the technique could date some of the Jawoyn rock art to a time long before Europe’s Palaeolithic era; to a period before the beginning of the most recent Ice Age and a time that current knowledge has humans in Europe still evolving into anatomically modern Homo sapiens.

Also, Genyornis is not alone among the extinct species featured in the Arnhem Land rock art. Kangaroos and echidnas mingle with animals that vanished from the Australian mainland more recently, such as the Tasmanian tiger and the Tasmanian devil.

Professor Geneste says extinct species depicted in the Lascaux and Chauvet caves, including woolly mammoths, woolly rhinoceros, cave bears, cave lions and aurochs (the ancestors of domestic cattle) similarly indicated the age of the sites. “Extinct animals provide a reference point that we can relate to.”

And so for researchers like Professor Geneste and Mr Gunn it is art, a uniquely human form of expression, that becomes central to appreciating our early intellect. Mr Gunn says rock art is likely to accompany any evidence of human occupation at the Jawoyn sites, even 40,000 or more years back: “And in contrast to Europe where the rock art is mostly confined to isolated periods from 10,000 to 30,000 years ago, there is a continuous record of images tracking the presence of people across Jawoyn country.”

Mr Gunn says this consistent creative effort, reflected in layers of images superimposed on top of each other, will also assist in developing the first definitive timeline of the different Aboriginal art styles in Jawoyn country.

Dr David says previous studies have barely touched upon rock art diversity in Jawoyn country, as demonstrated by the fact that current art history has no record of 90 per cent of the styles represented in the Jawoyn rock art.

Jawoyn Association cultural and environment manager Ray Whear says the trove of sites waiting to be “rediscovered” in remote Jawoyn country could double the tally of Jawoyn art styles known to the world.

After locating more than 4300 art sites and 40,000 paintings since 2004 with helicopter pilot Chris Morgan, Mr Whear estimates that less than half the images adorning Jawoyn country have been recorded. Another aspect of the research is that it is linking a new generation of Jawoyn people to traditional culture, which Mr Whear says is helping to preserve “old knowledge”.

The knowledge of this rock art and the stories portrayed continues to be passed to elders and this is again filtering through to young Jawoyn people. Spurred by the archaeological revelations, today’s community elders are making a point of sharing their knowledge with the Jawoyn Association’s 590 members.

“It is the elders themselves who requested this research be done and who supervise the work. Jawoyn community members participate in all stages of the work with the archaeologists – in the field while digging and in the university laboratories,” Dr David says.

The earliest Jawoyn art also offers the rest of humankind a precious insight into the diversity of our early cognitive abilities, relationships with the natural world, and the belief systems that have grown from this.

The work of these sometimes ancient, sometimes recent, masterful artists reveals to us an innate enthusiasm for observation, for communication, for recording our existence and differentiating our humanity from the rest of the animal world … creating in many ways, our sense of soul.

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