Maliwawa Figures: A Rock Artwork Model Like No Different


Western Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, has a outstanding vary and variety of rock artwork websites, rivalling that of Europe, southern Africa and varied elements of Asia. A number of thousand websites have been documented and annually new discoveries are made by varied analysis groups working carefully with native Aboriginal communities.

In the present day, in the journal Australian Archaeology, we and colleagues introduce an necessary beforehand undescribed rock artwork fashion. Consisting of huge human figures and animals, the fashion is primarily present in northwest Arnhem Land, and has been named Maliwawa Figures by senior Conventional Proprietor Ronald Lamilami.

A Maliwawa macropod discovered within the Namunidjbuk clan property of the Wellington Vary. Picture: P Tacon

We recorded 572 Maliwawa work at 87 rock shelters over a 130-kilometre east-west distance, from Awunbarna (Mount Borradaile) to the Namunidjbuk clan property of the Wellington Vary, a area residence to distinctive and internationally important rock artwork of varied sorts.

Maliwawa Figures include purple to mulberry naturalistic human and animal types shaded with stroked traces. Often they’re in define with only a few strokes inside. Nearly all have been painted however there may be one drawing.

The figures are sometimes massive (over 50 cm excessive), generally life-size, though there are additionally some small ones (20–50 cm in peak). Numerous traces of proof counsel the figures most certainly date to between 6,000 to 9,400 years of age.

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Infographic summarising among the most important options of Maliwawa rock artwork . Infographic: P. Taçon; digital tracing: Fiona Brady

Animal-human relationships

Within the Maliwawa work, human figures are continuously depicted with animals, particularly macropods (kangaroos and wallabies), and these animal-human relationships look like central to the artists’ message. In some situations, animals virtually look like collaborating in or watching some human exercise.

One other key theme is a male or indeterminate human determine holding an animal, usually a snake, or one other human determine or an object.

Such scenes are uncommon in early rock artwork, not simply in Australia however worldwide. They supply a outstanding glimpse into previous Aboriginal life and cultural beliefs.

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Scene of two male Maliwawas with ball headdresses reaching right down to a shorter indeterminate human determine with a snake behind the male on the appropriate and behind the left male a feminine and a macropod, Namunidjbuk. An indeterminate human determine with a cone and feather headdress is above. Picture: P Tacon

Maliwawa animals are often in profile. Some macropods are proven in a human-like sitting pose with paws in entrance, resembling an individual taking part in a piano. Depictions of animal tracks (footprints) and geometric designs are uncommon.

Macropods, birds, snakes and longtom fish are essentially the most frequent animal topics, comprising three quarters of complete fauna. However, extra typically, mammals are most typical.

There are seven depictions of animals lengthy extinct within the Arnhem Land area, consisting of 4 thylacines and three bilby-like creatures. At one Namunidjbuk website there’s a uncommon depiction of a dugong.

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Digital tracing of panel of three bilby-like animals, Awunbarna. Digital tracing: Fiona Brady

A 3rd of human depictions have been labeled as male as a result of they’ve male genitalia depicted. Females, recognized as a result of breasts have been proven, are uncommon, comprising solely 5% of human depictions. Nearly 59% of human figures couldn’t be decided to be both male or feminine as a result of they lack sex-specific traits.

Human figures typically have round-shaped or oval-shaped heads; some have traces on the top suggestive of hair. 30% of human figures are proven with headdresses, of which there are ten completely different types. The commonest is a ball headdress, adopted by oval, cone and feather.

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Giant male Maliwawa human figures from an Awunbarna website. The most important male is 1.15 metres large by 1.95 metres excessive. Picture: P Tacon.

Maliwawa males are often in profile and infrequently have a bulging abdomen above a penis. A couple of Maliwawa females are additionally proven with an prolonged stomach.

Nationwide significance

Most Maliwawa Figures are in accessible or seen locations at low panorama elevations slightly than hidden away, or at shelters excessive within the panorama. This implies they have been meant to be seen, probably from far. Usually, Maliwawa Figures dominate shelter partitions with rows of figures in varied preparations.

We first discovered a few of these figures throughout a survey in 2008-2009 however they turned the main target of additional area analysis from 2016 to 2018.

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Again-to-back Maliwawa macropods within the ‘piano participant’ pose, Namuidjbuk. Picture: P. Tacon

In Australia, we’re spoiled with rock artwork — work, drawings, stencils, prints, petroglyphs (engravings) and even designs constituted of native beeswax in rock shelters and small caves, on boulders and rock platforms. Usually in spectacular and spiritually important landscapes, rock artwork stays crucial to First Nation communities as part of residing tradition.

There are as many as 100,000 websites right here, representing tens of hundreds of years of creative exercise. However even in 2020, new types are being recognized for the primary time.

What if the Maliwawa Figures have been in France? Absolutely, they’d be the topic of nationwide satisfaction with completely different ranges of presidency working collectively to make sure their safety and researchers endeavouring to raised perceive and defend them.

We should not enable Australia’s abundance of rock artwork to result in a nationwide ambivalence in direction of its appreciation and safety.

The Maliwawa Figures reveal how far more now we have to study from Australia’s early artists. And who is aware of what else is on the market ready to be discovered.​

This text by Paul S.C.Taçon and Paul S.C.Taçon initially appeared in The Conversation and has been reprinted right here underneath the Artistic Commons license.



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