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Dating the Dreaming: extinct fauna in the petroglyphs of the Pilbara region, Western Australia.


Examples of striped marsupial depictions have been reported from both the coastal and inland Pilbara. Many are regarded as images of the thylacine, an animal that disappeared from mainland Australia some 3000-4000 years ago. Also observable in the rock art is the 'fat-tailed macropod', a distinctive rendition of a marsupial with an extremely thick tail. Recent investigations in the Tom Price area and on the Burrup Peninsula confirm that both motifs pertain to the more ancient rock art corpus. Restricted artistic variation within the depiction of these two species confirms the trend to naturalistic style within animal subjects and suggests a extensive, culturally cohesive, artistic tradition across the Pilbara during the Pleistocene and early Holocene.

At two specific locations, aspects of the rock art may be explained in terms of contemporary oral traditions and cultural practices, affording one way of placing temporal parameters on these early graphic traditions. I argue that the rock art is not just representational; that it communicates mythological narratives and behavioural traits, which have a deep antiquity to the Dreaming of more than just a few thousand years.

Keywords: Rock art, Pilbara, extinct fauna, thylacine, fat-tailed macropod


Investigations in Australia have identified significant material cultural changes in the archaeological record from before 5000 years ago, with increasing developments within the last few thousand years. Introduction of the dingo, appearance of microliths and pressure-flaking techniques, are but some of these innovations that appear within the archaeological record. Explanations of these innovations are linked to adoption of expedient, risk minimisation strategies or reflect development in social and economic complexity (David et al. 2006; Hiscock 1994; Lourandos 1997). Archaeological debate has focused on the timing and implications of these changes. More importantly may be the evolution of the socio-religious systems of the inhabitants of this country.

Holocene changes in technology are thought to be concurrent with the development of particular cultural systems (Gibbs and Veth 2002; McBryde 1992). Aspects of this cultural organisation include ritual gatherings and exchange systems linked to development of the particular totemic geographic and Dreaming kinship-based structures. It has been assumed that the appearance of certain artefacts, such as backed artefacts, geometric microliths and the tula adze in areas like the Pilbara are concurrent with changing cultural systems. Data from excavations throughout the Hamersley Range (inland Pilbara) point to the introduction of such in the early second millennium BC.

The lack of definitive dating of rock art has limited its application in this debate (McBryde 1992: 221). However, the apparent trend toward more localised rock art style provinces, including the notion of territorial markers, is held as evidence of the development of social complexity and increasing population density (Gibbs and Veth 2002: 12; McDonald 2005; Morwood 2002; Smith 1996). Certainly the rock art of the Pilbara displays regional variation and particular stylistic traditions, although a temporal handle on this is still being developed (Dix 1978; McCarthy 1962; McDonald and Veth 2005; 151-7; McNickle 1984; Wright 1968; however see Bednarik 2002). During excavations at Skew Valley, located toward the southern end of the Burrup Peninsula (coastal Pilbara), five pieces of engraved rock were recovered. Radiocarbon age determinations provide minimum dates of 3700BP for a group of side profile human figures, 2700BP for simple stick figures and 2600BP for a "coiled snake" (Lorblanchet 1992: 41). This shell midden excavation provides the only firm dates for rock art in the Pilbara. Other chronological indicators include an assumed shift to marine species depiction in the rock art, a circumstance tied to changing ecology linked to the marine transgression, c. 6000-7000 BP.

There are other possible temporal indicators in the rock art. Over 20 years ago Steve Brown wrote about a specific form of petroglyph, stating; "that the motif represents a now extinct species of macropod .... [or] ... may have been associated with increase rituals" (Brown 1983: 187-8). At that time these particular images where known from only a limited area of the Hamersley Range, Pilbara. That they may simply have been a localised artistic tradition was feasible. Now, 'fat-tailed macropod' petroglyphs have been recorded at locations throughout the Pilbara. There is no doubt that they are, in the specific treatment of the tail, a distinct and intentional representation and not just some inconsistency in the stylistic rendition of macropods (Figure 1).

Writing some ten years earlier, Bruce Wright (1972) commented on motifs that he regarded as representations of thylacines, an animal thought to have been extinct on mainland Australia for thousands of years. That these are in fact depictions of this extinct marsupial has gained widespread acceptance, especially as they occur in rock art elsewhere in this country and actual remains have been uncovered (Brandl 1972; Chaloupka 1993; Lewis 1977; Wright 1972). In addition, the morphological traits exhibited in these Pilbara rock art images preclude them from being representation of other striped-backed fauna, such as numbats.



The Hamersley Range is an area rich in archaeological evidence. Nonetheless, its rock art is more numerically and stylistically limited than on the Abydos plain and coastal islands (see Wright 1968). In only a handful of rockshelters are simple pictographs present, comprising predominately stick figures and 'tally marks' (bars). Petroglyph sites are more widespread; although the number of motifs at sites is limited and rarely in the hundreds.

At one site near the town of Tom Price, within Guruma country, the association of the 'fat-tailed macropod' and 'thylacine' engravings provide, I believe, an intriguing insight into understanding the antiquity of particular cultural traditions. Jarunginginya is a place associated with the Warlka, a story about the tracking, spearing and hunting down of the mortally wounded ancestral kangaroo. Not so long ago, a recording programme was carried out at the site, identifying 285 petroglyphs (Mulvaney 2005a). Comparisons of the degree of petroglyph patina, subject depiction and style, as well as the spatial distribution of motifs throughout the site, provide a means to establish a chronological schema. Through the degree of weathering, patina offers a relative age indicator as a reflection of the time lapsed since a motif was engraved. In the Pilbara, the particular petrology ensures that the rate of weathering and repatination is relatively slow, not something that can happen over just a few hundred years.

Pecked outline 'fat-tailed macropod' motifs are among the earliest element in the rock art repertoire at Jarunginginya (i.e. they are the most heavily patinated). In style they are different from the elongated, finely incised representation of this macropod present at several stone quarry sites within the region (Brown 1983). The Jarunginginya 'fat-tailed macropod' motifs occur on relatively large panels on boulders away from the creek and on horizontal surfaces of the fractured bedrock forming edges of the creek channel. A paired thylacine motif has been executed on the horizontal surface at the top of the next bedrock stack upstream from one of the 'fat-tailed macropod' engraving (Figure 2c), Both sets of motifs are in simple outline form, are relatively deeply pecked and the engraved lines are c. 5-12 mm wide wide. The mouth of each of the three figures is depicted by a single line with a pair of pecked cupule eyes. This spatial proximity and similarities in stylistic conventions, suggest that the two subjects may be contemporaneous (acknowledging that future absolute dating will be needed to confirm this). In form the Janunginginya thylacines are more naturalistic and much larger than the two examples known from nearby sites at Palm Springs and Spring Creek (Figure 2a, b). This noted difference at least partially supports the contention that the thylacines and 'fat-tail macropod' are of similar antiquity.

During a postulated later phase in the production of the petroglyphs at Jarunginginya, macropod motifs lack the distinctive fat-tail and conform to the stylistic conventions of other subject depictions from this phase. One feature of this later phase art is the appearance of human figures 'holding' or in close proximity to 'spears'. These subjects are seen to coincide with the contemporary mythology ascribed to the site. In one case, human foot prints and macropod tracks run across several boulder surfaces, evocative of the hunting narrative ascribed to this site. The assumed temporal progression in the rock art phases suggests that the early period images may have been refined in subsequent mythology development, with succeeding art phases more directly analogous with the contemporary Guruma Dreaming (Mulvaney 2005a).

Geometric microliths and backed blades have been recorded at this site (Bednarik 1977; Mulvaney 2005a). Such artefacts have an antiquity within the Pilbara in the order of 3000 years. Based on stylistic convention and degree of patination, it is reasonable to postulate that the 'fat-tailed macropod' and thylacine engravings predate the 'small tool' phase, and that the totemic affiliation (Ancestral Kangaroo) of Jarunginginya may have its origin in the depictions of the 'fat-tailed macropod'. Certainly, the large 'fat-tailed macropod' image on the creek-side stack has a line ('spear') extending out from the animal's back. Both spear and outline macropod appear to be relatively old, a situation that has also been observed within Arnhem Land rock art (Ben Gunn pers. comm.). The more recent engravings, which are thought to depict the contemporary Dreaming story, likely date to the last few thousand years based on their comparatively unpatinated condition.


Dampier Archipelago

In what was recognised as Yaburara country, the Dampier Archipelago contains, arguably, the greatest concentration of petroglyphs in the world. Many of the valleys on the largest island (now known as the Burrup Peninsula) contain tens of thousands of engravings (Lorblanchet 1992; Veth et al. 1993; Vinicombe 2002; Virili 1978). It is the petrology and geomorphology of the area (resilient bedrock and resource richness) that contribute to the proliferation of this rock art. The hardness of the granophyre, the particular boulder shield weathering formation and the cortex (crust) of the rock surface, not only provide innumerable surfaces to produce the images but once created are slow to erode to invisibility. In subject depiction, stylistic character and patina, the Dampier Archipelago petroglyph production spans at least 10,000 years and quite likely has some assemblages of much greater antiquity (Lorblanchet 1992; McDonald 2005).

Of particular interest here are the depictions of a quadruped with internal pattern of lines, interpreted as images of the thylacine. To date some 27 definitive images have been recorded across the Burrup and at one location on Angel Island (Figures 3, 4, 5). In addition to these striped quadrupeds, there are other images that are so stylised it is impossible to unequivocally allocate them to the thylacine class and not other striped marsupials (Figure 6). Similar equivocal depictions have been recorded in the Calvert Ranges of the central Canning Stock Route (P. Veth pers. comm. 2007). There are also motifs that resemble the thylacine but lack the internal body stripes. What diagnostic features an artist may wish to depict in an image is an interesting question. Prior to the introduction of the dingo, it can be argued that the relative proportion of the four limbs, and not the colour banding, distinguished the thylacine from other marsupials. Indeed, Thylacinus cynocephalus has been identified in Arnhem Land rock art based on overall form rather than just the presence of stripes (Murray and Chaloupka 1984). However, Clegg (1978) cautioned on the speciation of striped animal motifs where he proposed the application of mathematical principles in determining the likely subject fauna. My own observations on the shape, angle and size of the panel suggests it influences relative anatomical proportions and angles perhaps as much as attempts at naturalistic reproduction. There should also be a consideration of the issue of artistic conventions that predicate the production of an image. In the case of the Dampier Archipelago, with its evidently long trajectory of rock art production, this is especially relevant.



At one location within Patterson Valley is a quadruped motif that has been subjected to physical alteration that is not recorded for any other petroglyph within the Dampier Archipelago (Figure 7). A large spinifex and stony area opens out in front of the pounded quadruped, the image clearly visible from all aspects. The internal portion of the image has been subjected to abrasion and pulverising to an extent that pounded hollows (large cupules) are present. These cupules are, in the main, confined to the torso region and exhibit a similar degree of patination to that of the rest of the motif. In addition to this treatment, pecked and scored lines radiate out from the quadruped and several of these lines continue over the surface of adjacent boulders. The degree of weathering, as judged by the relative contrast between the scored and adjacent surfaces, suggests that they are not contemporaneous with the cupules.

Surrounding this conspicuous petroglyph, in an area of 200 square metres, are 23 depictions of macropods, almost all portraying the fat-tail variety. These images are in the order of 70-120 cm in maximum length. There are only a few other petroglyphs in this locale, whose motif subjects include circles, other geometrics and two birds (emu). All motifs, including the smaller geometric images, are heavily weathered. The level of extensive patination strongly suggests that the petroglyphs in this location were not just produced within the last few thousand years. This cluster of assumed older engravings is located within a slight 'amphitheatre-like' formation in a cross valley to the main petroglyph distribution of Patterson Valley. There appears to be a spatial and arguably a symbolic association between the macropod and the quadruped motifs. No additional petroglyphs occur to the east of this cluster, while to the west (back toward the main valley) human figures and other figurative art spanning many episodes of art production are present.


The spatial association of 'predator-prey' is known from one other location on the Burrup, at Gum Tree Valley. Here a large bird (eagle) with outstretched wings, depicted with a 'headdress' and 'dance wands' at its wing-tips is depicted on a prominent vertical face of a large boulder (Virili 1978: 444). This motif also seems to have been subject to abrasion, although not to the same extent as the Patterson Valley quadruped. In addition, several large macropod motifs are positioned on surrounding rocks, these images being up to 200 cm in size. This motif is relatively unpatinated, as is the internal abrasion, suggesting that the image is more recent within the Burrup art sequence. Certainly, the association of an Anadara granosa shell midden below and between the boulders of this impressive petroglyph supports the contention that this eagle motif could date to a cultural phase of less than 4000 years ago (Lorblanchet 1992).




Emergence of localised, stylistic convergence in the rock art of the mid Holocene has been seen as a reflection of developing linguistic and socio-culture blocs, where group solidarity within defined territory is critical (McDonald 1994). Stylistic conventions linking peoples and communicating identity are behavioural traits embedded in social-symbolic cohesion. The relationship of the Wandjina figures and particular clan estates within the Kimberley region of Western Australia provides a classic example of this congruence (Crawford 1968). In Central Australia the most highly stylised art relates to specific sacred sites and was not seen by most people. Therefore its purpose was not to communicate boundaries or clan identities but instead reinforced internal cohesion (Gunn 2003). A number of rock art studies have established that subject and placement of images are not simply random artistic events (Clarke 2003: 90). Meaning and purpose are embedded in the spatial arrangement of the rock art. The context of rock art production will be variable; produced as casual secular or ritual art, in addition to holding sacred meaning, and in cases of sorcery (Mulvaney 1992, 1996).

In this paper, rock art is not seen to be limited to defining territory and group identity; rather it is seen as reflecting the antiquity of a subject and its function. Figurative and to a lesser extent track motifs, in addition to providing signals on group cohesion and cultural traditions, can inform on environment change and data on shifting species availability. This is no more dramatically evident than in the western Arnhem Land art and that found within the Dampier Archipelago (Chaloupka 1984, 1993; Lorblanchet 1992; McDonald and Veth 2005; Veth et al. 1993; Vinnicombe 1987, 2002).

At Jarunginginya and at Patterson Valley the presence of extinct fauna in the rock art is seen to provide a chronological indication as to the ritual activities of these places. The thylacine motif at Janunginginya is thought to be spatially and stylistically associated with the 'fat-tail macropod', supporting their contemporaneity. They belong to a naturalistic stylistic tradition that is true to life in form. The artist does not aim at photographic accuracy but emphasizes salient features (Brandl 1972: 28). It is likely that the fat tail does signify a true anatomical feature and not simply an artistic embellishment. That they also occur in proximity to the Patterson Valley quadruped indicates a temporal association of more than 4000-3000 years ago.

In the case of the Janunginginya motifs and the contemporary mythology relating to the spearing of Warlka, the assumed temporal sequence of the rock art suggests that the specific appearance of the 'hunter' in the petroglyphs has been more recently executed than the disappearance of the thylacine from the region. It is reasonable to argue that the actual 'spear' in the back of the large 'fat-tailed' macropod is an artistic embellishment to this animal design that has been evoked from the Janunginginya mythological narrative. Were it possible to demonstrate this link, it would indicate a continuing mythological association of many millennia.

One element of the 'fat-tailed macropod' motif of note is that finely-incised line depictions are a specific stylistic attribute of these macropod images. At sites like Janunginginya, the sizes of the pecked outline form of the 'fat-tailed macropod' are in the order of 180 [+ or -] 30 cm, whereas the finely incised form are invariably less than 100 cm in maximum length (Figure 2). The production of these smaller, incised images commonly occurs on boulders within 'dolerite' quarries throughout the Hamersley and Chichester Ranges. This spatial association between these finely incised images and stone blade quarries may have a functional association, in that fine-edged artefacts make useful incising tools and are produced in abundance at these sites. That these incised versions do not occur elsewhere to the same extent, yet the stone tools are ubiquitous, suggests a cultural affiliation, possibly tied to particular totemic relationship of these rock quarries (see Mulvaney 2005b).

As in many parts of Australia, the Pilbara has a tradition for the regeneration of particular species. Locally known as thalu sites, the beliefs involve explicit ritual behaviours at specific places (Daniel 1990). Features of some of these thalu sites are petroglyphs and natural rock formations that are held to be the transmogrification of plants, animals or insects and other natural phenomena. It has also been noted that petroglyphs and standing stone arrangements often occur in combination at thalu sites (Palmer 1975: 158). Applications of force such as hitting them with vegetation or rocks, or application of a liquid additive, are part of these rituals. Such behaviours may explain the particular attributes of the Patterson Valley quadruped and the Gum Tree Valley eagle sites.

Many years ago I had the privilege of being taken to view an important Emu thalu on Red Bank Station, western Pilbara region. The main feature of this site comprises a distinctive boulder shaped like an emu. Numerous engraved bird tracks are engraved across its surface. In this instance it was evident that the petroglyphs were not the instigator of the contemporary explanation for this increase site. Nevertheless, the engraved tracks did reinforce the essence of the mythological identity of the place. Where petroglyphs do occur at thalu sites within the Pilbara they are an integral part of the ritual's association; however they are not essential to the functioning of the thalu in the same sense as the application of force or additive (see Daniel 1990).

It is argued here that the repeated pounding of the Patterson Valley thylacine image likely occurred as a normal part of a maintenance ritual. It is conceivable that the radiating lines are a metaphysical link between the thylacine and surrounding prey, the 'fat-tailed macropod' in particular. In no other location on the Dampier Archipelago has such treatment been recorded, either the cupules or extending lines. In several cases there are compositions that include the primary subject with radiating lines, however these are confined to the single rock panel. There is a quintessential difference with the Patterson Valley location and the suite of petroglyphs that set this place apart. There is something unique about this combination and treatment of images. With the evident demise of the thylacine 4000-3000 years ago, those charged with its ritual maintenance would have been inevitably challenged. For the custodians of the site, the sacramental practitioners, altering the usual ceremony may have constituted a final and desperate attempt to ensure the continued existence of the Thylacinus cynocephalus. What we may have documented is a continuity of ritual practice which has an antiquity spanning an extinction event.

Thylacine motifs within the Dampier Archipelago provide evidence for a range of artistic conventions (Figures 4, 5, 6). The form and dynamism of the group near Mangrove Creek, Withnell Bay compared to the static stance of those at Patterson Valley and Two Chooks Valley provide evidence for this difference. This may be the result of the work of individual artists, or the influence of particular artistic traditions. However, there are also variations in the general stylistic standards through time (Lorblanchet 1992; McDonald and Veth 2005; Mulvaney in press; Vinnicombe 2002). Following an earlier and possibly more elaborate art tradition of complex geometrics and 'archaic faces', there is seen to be a period of non-naturalistic forms which include the disarticulated dot-headed human figures and stylised fauna with extenuated limbs. The subsequent rock art phase, to which the Patterson Valley quadruped belongs, presents more correctly proportional (naturalistic) representations. In later phases, which span the marine transgression, faunal subjects are depicted anatomically correctly, and defining features of species are portrayed. Importantly, the pair of small, elongated limbed, striped animals at the Haul Road Site are within a motif form that pertains to one of the older phases of the Burrup rock art (Figure 6) (Mulvaney in press). It is clear that as a subject, the thylacine was reproduced in the rock art of the Dampier Archipelago from earliest times until their eventual demise.

I would suggest that the juxtaposition of the Patterson Valley quadruped and the Gum Tree Valley bird and their surrounding by numerous macropod engravings, is not accidental. Quite feasibly, the particular thalu petroglyphs reflect the transferral of paramount predator; essentially from thylacine to Wedge-tail Eagle. Macropod images of the 'Thylacine Group' all display the characteristic fat-tail and trend towards a middling size range (70-120 cm). The macropods surrounding the eagle, although much fewer in number, are depicted as large outline form (>200 cm) with bars across the base of the tail and with two dot eyes. This dichotomy in motif style is indicative that each group of petroglyphs pertains to separate art traditions, yet are linked in a conceptual sense. However, the temporal relationship between these art traditions remains to be demonstrated. The Gum Tree Valley location of the 'Eagle Group' is associated with a shell midden and numerous shells and flaked stone artefacts are scattered among the adjacent rocky slopes. This is not the case with the Patterson Valley pounded and scratched 'thylacine' motif. This possible difference in age lends some support to the contention that the principal predator aspect of the rock art association has a chronological basis to it. Radiocarbon determinations show that Anadara is the dominant marine resource between 2200 and 4500 BP (Lorblanchet 1992: 42).


As a general principle, Aboriginal relations to places are embedded in kinship and cultural traditions that are informed by the Dreaming. Graphic systems link into this cultural structure; the context and meaning of the art informing on physical catchments and at a cognitive level serving to signal to others. My own observations on the Burrup Peninsula lead me to believe that particular and striking images are found in specific valley loci. It may be that such petroglyphs pertain to local totemic associations. It is possible that the two prominent images, the eagle and thylacine, have their origin in this cultural context. However their particular treatment, given the elaboration seen in pounding, pecking and abrasion, sets both images as apart from others so far recorded in the Dampier Archipelago.

Certainly one of the difficulties in rock art studies is the ability to identify relationships of images within given locations and across the landscape. Issues of contemporaneous production or the linkage of contextual relationships (either temporal or conceptual) raise particular challenges. The specific symbolism intended or iconographic signalling are aspects of the socio-cultural sphere of art production. Often researchers are left with minimal information on which to peg the meaning of the art. However, in the case of Jarunginginya the subject matter linkages between the rock art and Dreaming traditions offer possible chronological and contextual precepts. As evidenced by the petroglyphs, it is after the disappearance of thylacines that the imagery coalesced into definitive emblematic representations of the mythology. In this case the rock art was reflecting, not informing, the contemporary Guruma Tradition.

To date some 27 probable and possible thylacine images have been recorded from the Dampier Archipelago. In addition, there are a dozen or so quadruped images that lack the distinct transverse stripes. This presence of thylacine images in the rock art provides a minimum date, not only for art production but also for the ritual context of its production. In the case of Patterson Valley quadruped, the specific treatment of the image sets it apart from other such images and reflects a cultural practise that is extant in the Pilbara. There is also the possibility that there is a continuation of the Burrup tradition of dominant prey thalu, seen in the hypothesised thylacine--eagle transfer.

Unlike the recent assessment of evidence from Central Australia and the particular case of Ngarrabullgan (David 2002), the evidence from the Pilbara would situate the Dreamings and associated traditions that include extinct fauna as at least 3000-4000 years ago rather than an antiquity of less than 1400. This is not to contest the evidence for major developments and population dynamics of the last few thousand years. The nature of the archaeological evidence does not necessarily represent ritual functioning and Dreaming associations. Sites within Arrernte country cannot necessarily inform on the potential connectedness of place and behaviour in the Pilbara. There are more proximal data sets and high quality ethnographies from the Western Desert (Veth 2005, 2006), however, which may be used in a reconsideration of the antiquity of the Dreaming. The Burrup occurrences of regeneration markings on extinct fauna, the juxtaposition of two species once extant in the region and the 'premier-prey' transfer for thalu ceremonies all speak to social dynamics of a greater order than 1500 BP and possibly exceeding 4000 years. Challenges remain, however, in accurately dating the engravings themselves, in avoiding analogic reasoning and in differentiating possibly ancient mythological narratives from other dynamic parts of the social system such as change in language, territoriality and lithic technology.


I dedicate this paper to some departed friends of the Burrup, David Daniel, Kenny Jerrod, and Pat Vinnicombe, all of whom inspired me to appreciate and rethink the petroglyphs of the Dampier Archipelago. I am also indebted for the comments and advice given by Christine Martin and Ben Gunn who read earlier drafts of this paper, and to Peter Veth who provided valuable comment and insight on a later version. Readers should note that this paper was completed in 2007.


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School of Human and Environmental Studies, University of New England, Armidale, NSW 2351.
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Author:Mulvaney, Ken
Publication:Archaeology in Oceania
Geographic Code:8AUWA
Date:Apr 1, 2009
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