How old is north Queensland’s rock-art? A review of the evidence, with new AMS determination

How old is north Queensland’s rock-art? A review of the evidence, with new AMS determination

It has been 18 years since Andrée Rosenfeld suggested that the rock art of north Queensland changed from non-figurative to mainly figurative form some 5-4000 years ago. Her views were based on a small regional database and on indirect chronological evidence. This paper looks afresh at the antiquity of north Queensland’s rock art by reviewing the existing evidence – much elaborated since Rosenfeld’s pioneering work – and by presenting new AMS radiocarbon results undertaken directly on rock art. Her general chronological model is supported and refined by these new findings.

In 1981, Andrée Rosenfeld suggested that Aboriginal people at Laura (SE Cape York) had changed the way
they decorated caves and rock shelters sometime around 5-4000 BP (Rosenfeld et α/., 1981). Following up on her
archaeological excavations at the Early Man Rocksheiter, she argued that before 13,000 BP Aboriginal people
were decorating rock shelters by pecking1 abstract designs such as tridents, pits, mazes, rings, and rounded
enclosures with internal patterns. At the Early Man site, such pecked designs had been uncovered, buried beneath
stratified deposits of that age. In many other sites, similar peckings had attained a deep surface patina, the testimony of their considerable age. Andrée Rosenfeld also observed that in some sites, less patinated peckings could also be found.

These were similar in shape to the older Early Man designs, although new forms also appeared. Such a pattern of continuity with change was in many ways akin to observations made 16 years earlier by John Mulvaney for stone artifacts at Kenniff Cave some 1100 km to the south, where he had argued that around 5000 years ago new tool types began to be manufactured and used together with a continuity of older forms (Mulvaney & Joyce, 1965). At
Laura, Andrée thus argued that motifs such as mazes and tridents continued to be made, probably for thousands of
years, while other designs such as discs at the Quinkan Galleries, macropod tracks, and star-shapes were added
onto the pecked corpus. However, figurative designs still failed to appear (apart from some animal tracks) (Rosenfeld et al, 1981:86-7).

The great antiquity of the former, she argued, could be seen in the buried peckings at Early Man and in the heavy to a moderate patina that had accumulated over them at other sites. But peckings were not simply old. Andrée also argued that figurative motifs were added to the repertoire of Laura’s rock- art late during the course of history. This was evident in the engravings, where animal and human tracks, anthropomorphic and boomerangs
began to be depicted, perhaps 5-4000 years ago, at various sites around Laura (including Early Man). ‘It is
probable’, she concluded (Rosenfeld et al., 1981:88), ‘that figurative engravings continued until “the recent past'”, meaning until the arrival of Europeans. Based on the distribution of ochre in her excavations, she further argued that it was during this period of time (from 5-4000 BP until less than 200 years ago) that Laura’s cave paintings also began to be systematically made (in this paper, we use the term ‘painting’ to refer to both wet and dry pigment art (i.e. including drawings).

Paintings and drawings properly occur contemporaneously in the rock art sequence). She concluded (Rosenfeld et al, 1981:34): It seems clear, therefore, that some rock engravings are contemporary with the tradition of rock painting, whereas between the early engraved frieze and the painted frieze [at Early Man] there is virtually no overlap.

It is more difficult to assess the probable origins of the painting tradition, but two factors indicate that it is unlikely to be older than some 4000-5000 years. Andrée’s chronology of Laura’s rock art has considerable implications for SE Cape York history. While her dating of the art has recently been revised by independent researchers (in particular Noelene Cole, Alan Watchman, Mike Morwood, and the present authors; see below), her general schema has withstood the test of time. Researchers generally agree on the existence of an: Department of Geography and Environmental Science, Monash University, Clayton, Victoria 3168, Australia. E-mail: RAA & MH: Department of Chemistry, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX 77843-3255.

. In this paper, the term ‘pecking’ refers to any engraved picture resulting from the repeated percussion of a surface, irrespective of whether or not a chisel or punch was used between the hammer and the rock surface. In
the vast majority of cases, we do not think it is possible to distinguish between pictures pecked by direct or
by indirect (chisel/punch) percussion. 103 early pecking tradition was dominated by non-figurative motifs, followed by paintings and engravings of both figurative and non-figurative forms. There is also general agreement that the majority of Laura’s extant paintings date to the mid to late Holocene period, although the degree to which earlier pigment art has disappeared from the walls is a matter for debate. Of archaeological interest is the more recent observation that while the old, patinated pecked motifs are widespread, Laura’s paintings are more restricted in their distribution, being formally different from those of neighboring regions, such as the Koolburra Plateau to the northwest, Princess Charlotte Bay to the north, and the Mitchell-Palmer and Chillagoe to the south (see
David & Chant, 1995; David & Lourandos, 1998 for discussions). The significance of this is that if the paintings
of SE Cape York indeed only date to the mid to late Holocene, as originally suggested by Andrée, then also
implicated is a régionalisation of artistic practices since that time. This has considerable ramifications for our
understanding of past socio-demographic trends, in particular for changes in the way people expressed and organised themselves on the ground through symbolic behavior (David & Lourandos, 1998). There is, therefore, a need to test and refine our understanding of north Queensland’s rock art, both for its own sake and for its broader implications concerning past relations between people and place. Much circumstantial evidence has already been accumulated generally supporting and refining Andrée’s original chronological model. Some ‘direct’ AMS radiocarbon dates have also appeared in the press. It is now time to review this diverse evidence, which lies scattered in various books and journals, at times in obscure places. This paper thus attempts to test and further refine existing chronological models for north Queensland’s cave paintings, by both reviewing the postRosenfeld evidence for the antiquity of north Queensland’s rock art, as well as by presenting new AMS results directly undertaken on a series of charcoal paintings from the Chillagoe region, located 100 km to the south of the Laura sandstone belt. These chronological models grew from Andrée’s pioneering work at Laura, and now require to be tested by a joining of forces between archaeologists, chemists, and dating experts (see also Cole et al, 1995). The region Cape York2 is Australia’s largest peninsula (Fig. 1). It juts north of latitude 17°30′, pointing towards the island of Papua New Guinea to which it was attached during the last glacial maximum. The region is monsoonal, receiving heavy rains during the wet season (November-April), and less than 10% of its mean annual rainfall during the rest of the year. The eastern coastal strip is rarely over 5 km wide. To the west is the Great Dividing Range, its gentle western slopes leading to extensive flat plains extending further westward to the Gulf of Carpentaria. It is on the Great Dividing Range and along its western slopes that rock outcrops are commonly found, many of which are decorated with rock art. Geologically, Cape York is diverse, containing volcanic (mainly granite and basalt) and sedimentary rocks (mainly sandstone and limestone). It is among the latter that most of the rock art has been recorded, especially in
the Koolburra Plateau, Laura and Ngarrabullgan (sandstone), and the Mitchell-Palmer and Chillagoe MunganaRookwood (limestone) regions.

The rock art of SE Cape York

Almost all of the rock art of SE Cape York is found in caves or rock shelters. It is very rarely found on rock outcrops or pavements unless these occur in close association with overhangs. SE Cape York is renowned as one of the world’s great rock-art regions, popularly captured in the label ‘Quinkan Country’ (Trezise, 1969, 1971). However, this
is somewhat of a misnomer. Quinkans are Dreaming beings that frequent only certain parts of the region, in
particular the area around Laura (Cole, 1992). Accordingly, depictions of Quinkans in the art are only
found in the Laura district, being totally absent from areas further afield such as Ootan, Chillagoe, Mungana,
Rookwood and Ngarrabullgan to the south, and Jane Table Hill, Clack Island, Cliff Island, and the Flinders
Island group to the north3. Even at Laura, depictions of Quinkans are not found amongst all types of rock art,
being restricted to the paintings which Andrée had suggested are no more than 5000 years old. Therefore, if
Andrée’s general chronology is correct, even at Laura Quinkans emerged in rock art only late in history.
The rock art of SE Cape York has traditionally been divided into three broad techniques by archaeologists,
stencils, engravings, and paintings. Stencils are geographically widespread, occurring in all regions where systematic surveys have been undertaken. Engravings tend to be restricted to limestone and sandstone country; they are
almost never found on the harder granites or basalts (but see David & Wilson, 1998).

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