Since cave rock art is restricted almost exclusively to limestone karsts, its distribution in Australia is determined by the occurrence of such landforms. While research on Australasian islands has yielded only limited results, four karst areas have been successfully surveyed for cave art on the Australian mainland. Only one of the site clusters located to date, near Mt Gambier, has been surveyed comprehensively, with about forty sites currently known and only limited scope for further discoveries. This is also the only Australasian region that has yielded evidence of a lengthy cultural sequence of rock art traditions occurring in darkness, as well as dating information from both archaeological floor deposits and from the rock art itself. With the exception of a single site on the Nullarbor, Koonalda Cave, it is also the only cave art region in this part of the world that has had a significant impact on archaeological theories. Australian cave art comprises a major Pleistocene component, which is entirely non-figurative and whose motif range matches that of Middle Palaeolithic art traditions of the Old World.
On the Nullarbor, the world’s largest karst, the occurrence of cave art has been confirmed in five sites, although further discoveries are still likely there. In most cases this art occurs in the form of rock paintings, especially red ochre hand stencils. Koonalda Cave represents that area’s only major known instance of engravings and finger flutings (Gallus 1968), which form the rock art corpus in three other cave art regions: near Perth, where three sites are presently known (as well as one cave painting site), at Buchan, with only one site, and the large body of cave petroglyphs between Portland and Mt Gambier (Bednarik 1990). It needs to be appreciated that, within the massive rock art corpus of Australia, the largest in the world (several hundred thousand sites), the continent’s cave art still represents only a minuscule fraction of one per cent.
The Mt Gambier region shows a sequence of several distinctive marking traditions. These are often separated chronologically by evidence of geomorphological events, such as tectonic adjustments, roof falls, subsidences, inundations, speleo-weathering or animal scratch marks (including megafaunal marks), and sometimes physically by layers of calcite speleothem (Bednarik 1998). Finger flutings, made by drawing fingers over a soft, moonmilk-covered surface, seem to represent the earliest tradition (Bednarik 1986). The traces of another distinctive behaviour occurring early in the sequence are large concentrations of impact marks, often in the form of deeply pounded holes forming discrete wall panels. These deep pits may be as much as 20 cm deep and individual tool marks remain frequently recognisable in them. They are thought to be the most extreme form of the ubiquitous cup marks (cupules) occurring widely above ground and on much harder rock, including quartzite and granite, in similar large groups. Such cup marks occur in their hundreds of thousands in the continent’s north, where they are generally recognised as representing the earliest surviving rock art.
A very different subsequent tradition has been named the Karake style, after the Mt Gambier cave where it was first recognised. It consists of a variety of geometric motifs, usually deeply pounded and abraded into cave walls, with groove depths of up to 40 mm Aslin, Bednarik & Bednarik 1985). Circles are particularly prominent, sometimes forming groups of a few dozen, occasionally with internal vertical parallel lines, lozenge pattern or central pit. Other motifs include simple linear designs resembling bird or kangaroo tracks, but it is not at all certain that this is what they were intended to depict. Such designs grade into arrangements that are defined as CLMs (convergent lines motifs, in which several lines are bunched together, converging at one end but not necessarily touching). Occasional other motif types are zigzag or wave lines, arcuate designs and parallel lines. Again, some characteristic features of the tradition can be recognised in the pre-figurative petroglyphs above ground. A distinctive arrangement of several circles at an open granite site has been dated to about 27 000 years (Bednarik 2001), and the art of one of the Karake sites, Malangine Cave near Mt Gambier, has been shown to be in excess of 28 000 years old, through uranium-thorium analysis of a covering layer of reprecipitated calcite (Bednarik 1999). Thus dates obtained from this cave art tradition match dating of similar rock art at open sites.
The more recent cave petroglyphs at Mt Gambier consist of shallow abraded engravings of the Holocene, but it must be emphasised that some of the finger flutings, too, appear to be of that period. Another form of cave markings, frequent near Mt Gambier and Perth, consists of apparently unstructured assemblages of tool marks made either with limestone clasts or with chert tools. These are sometimes exceptionally well preserved. Only one of the Mt Gambier sites presents minor pigmented rock art, fully exposed to daylight. Similarly, there is much painted rock art in shelters and cave entrances in a further limestone area, the Chillagoe region of north Queensland, but this is not cave art in the sense that it does not occur in darkness.
Five of the sites of cave petroglyphs along the southern coast have been subjected to archaeological excavations: Orchestra Shell, Koonalda, Koongine, Malangine and New Guinea 2 Caves. Although some of these yielded Pleistocene occupation evidence, a satisfactory nexus has not been established between sedimentary dates and the rock art, in any of these cases. At six of the cave petroglyph sites, subterranean chert or chalcedony mining traces are quite prominent, and it is possible that the mining activities coincided chronologically with some of the rock art production. This is the major corpus of Pleistocene underground mining evidence in the world (Bednarik 1995).
In Tasmania, three caves with minor rock painting are known, but the direct dating evidence obtained from two motifs, reportedly from blood residues, remains controversial. Cave art also occurs in Papua-New Guinea, including small examples of finger fluting in two deep caves, Kalate Egeanda and an unpublished site (Ballard 1992). Although rock art occurs widely on the Islands of Australasia, there are no further cases known of true cave art, even though much of this art does occur in limestone regions. Examples are the shelter paintings of Vanuatu, or the numerous limestone painting sites of New Zealand, none of which occurs more than four metres from the dripline.
Aslin, G. D., Bednarik, E. K. & Bednarik, R. G. 1985. The ‘Parietal Markings Project’: a progress report. Rock Art Research 2: 71-74.
Ballard, C. 1992. First report of digital fluting from Melanesia: the cave art site of Kalate Egeanda, Southern Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea. Rock Art Research 9: 119-21.
Bednarik, R.G. 1986. Parietal finger markings in Europe and Australia. Rock Art Research 3: 30-61, 159-70.
Bednarik, R.G. 1990. The cave petroglyphs of Australia. Australian Aboriginal Studies 1990(2): 64-68.
Bednarik, R.G. 1995. Untertag-Bergbau im Pleistozän. Quartär 45/46: 161-75.
Bednarik, R.G. 1998. Direct dating results from Australian cave petroglyphs. Geoarchaeology 13: 411-18.
Bednarik, R.G. 1999. The speleothem medium of finger flutings and its isotopic geochemistry. The Artefact 22: 49-64.
Bednarik, R.G. 2001. Pilbara petroglyphs dated. Rock Art Research 18: 55-57
Gallus, A. 1968. Parietal art in Koonalda Cave, Nullarbor Plain. Helictite 6: 43-49.
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