Australia's earliest contact rock art discovered

Australia's earliest contact rock art discoveredA team of researchers from The Australian National University and Griffith University have discovered evidence of Southeast Asian sailing vessels visiting Australia in the mid-1600s – the oldest contact rock art in Australia.

The discovery was made by the team taking part in the Picturing Change fieldwork project in the Wellington Range, Arnhem Land. The rock shelter the researchers are studying at Djulirri has nearly 1200 individual paintings and beeswax figures. It was documented by Professor Paul Taçon (Griffith University), Mr. Ronald Lamilami (Senior Traditional Owner) and Dr Sally K. May (ANU).

“This site includes at least 20 layers of art,” said Dr May. “And importantly, it has also yielded the oldest date yet recorded for contact rock art in Australia. A yellow painted prau (Southeast Asian sailing vessel) is found underneath a large beeswax snake. This snake was radiocarbon dated by Dr Stewart Fallon at ANU to between AD1624 – 1674, meaning that this is a minimum age for the sailing vessel painting.”

While historians and archaeologists have speculated that visits to the northern parts of Australia from Southeast Asian ships have been happening for hundreds of years before European settlements, this is the first rock art evidence found that dates the visits back to the 17th century.

“Djulirri has more diverse contact period rock art than any other site in Australia” said Professor Taçon. “Besides the oldest dated paintings of Southeast Asian ships, there are European tall ships and many other forms of watercraft, all of which can be placed in chronological sequence”.

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