Kakadu indigenous rock art sites

Cannon Hill, Alligator River

Aboriginal occupation and rock art site occur throughout three residual outliers of the Arnhem Land plateau around East Alligator River - Cannon Hill, Hawk's Dreaming and Obiri Rock. This region contains a concentration or Aboriginal rock art of such variety and quality of content that they have contributed greatly to the understanding of Australian rock art and its development.

Over 50 art sites have been recorded in the Cannon Hill area, that feature a wide variety of styles. This includes a number of distinctive hunting figures as well as X-ray style paintings of kangaroos, fish and other animals. Most of the painting occur in shelters, but there are numerous motifs of people that do not. Under ledges, in crevices and on small rock faces are frequently found human figures; men are in red ochre, women are in white. Scattered on the floor of one shelter are several large grindstones. Access to the area is restricted.

Hawk's Dreaming, East Alligator River

This locality has one of the largest concentrations of Aboriginal sites in this region, including a large stone arrangement, rock art and archaeological sites and a number of mortuary caves. Cockatoo Woman Cave has a painting of a woman with male and female figures within her body. Another figure is depicted with a body made up of concentric circles. In other shelters, the more traditional figures, such as men and women, animals and spirit beings occur regularly in shelters. One such being is Nabulwinjbulwinj, a dangerous spirit who eats females after striking them with a yam. His name is pronounced Nar-Bull-win-bull-win.

The walls of one cave near the Small Labyrinth at the northern end of Hawk's Dreaming are covered with large engraving, similar to grinding grooves. Evidence that cave artistry occurred in recent times here is seen in a number of motifs painted during the period of European occupation. At Warlkada there is a ship, a man wearing a hat and European clothes, a cat and even the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Excavation of deposits in the large open shelter of Nawamyon has revealed faunal remains as well as stone and bone tools. Of significance is a series of edge-ground tools, dated as 21,500 years old. Access to the area is restricted.

Obiri Rock (Ubirr), East Alligator River

This locality has over 120 art sites in a range of styles and located mainly in shelters. In the large shelters, early paintings have been painted over with large multi-coloured art. People, animals, running hunting figures and mythological beings are all represented in the art here. Painted in red ochre are figures of Europeans with guns. One pictures shows a spider being knocked down by water spurting from the mouth of an archer fish.

Groups of Aboriginal people camped in rock shelters around Ubirr to take advantage of the enormous variety of foods available from the East Alligator River, the Nadab floodplain, the woodlands, and the surrounding stone country.

The rock overhang of the main gallery provided an area where a family could set up camp. Food items were regularly painted on the back wall, one on top of the other, to pay respect to the particular animal, to ensure future hunting success, or to illustrate a noteworthy catch. Among the animals painted in the main gallery are barramundi, catfish, mullet, goannas, long-necked turtles, pig-nosed turtles, rock ring tail possums, and wallabies. Although Aboriginal people no longer live in the shelter, the animals depicted are still hunted for food today.

Most of the X-ray art in the main gallery such as the kangaroo above is from the freshwater period, so it is less than 1500 years old. There are also some interesting examples of contact art. One 'white fella' is depicted in trousers, shirt and boots and with his hands in his pockets; another, with a pipe in his mouth and his hands on his hips, is 'bossing us Aboriginal people around'. These figures are probably early buffalo hunters painted around the 1880s. Buffalo hunters employed Aboriginal people to help them hunt and run buffalo camps-they paid them with 'a little bit of tucker and some tobacco'.

Close to the main gallery is a painting of a thylacine (Tasmanian tiger). Archaeological evidence suggests that thylacines became extinct on the mainland about 2000 to 3000 years ago. The Namarrgarn (pronounced nar-marr-garn) Sisters are depicted at Ubirr pulling string apart. They live in the stars, from where they can throw down pieces of string, attach them to people's organs, quickly travel down the string, and make people very sick.

A painting by Mimi spirits can be seen high up on the ceiling of the overhang. Aboriginal people describe how the Mimi spirits came out of the cracks in the rocks, pulled the ceiling rock down, painted the yellow and red sorcery image, and then pushed the rock back into place.

Rainbow Serpents, or Rainbow Snakes, are powerful Creation Ancestors that are known to many Aboriginal people throughout Australia. They are believed to be one of the oldest artistic symbols used in the world and seem to hold value and power wherever they are depicted. Rainbow Serpents have different names in different languages throughout Australia. At Ubirr the Rainbow Serpent is known as Garranga'rreli (pronounced garr-rarn-gar-ree-lee). In her human form, she was called Birriwilk and travelled through this area with another woman looking for sweet lily roots. As she passed through Ubirr she painted her image on the rock to remind people of her presence. She rested in the forest at Manngarre, digging a hole in the cool sand.

The heap of sand from the hole became a rock where a huge banyan tree now grows: the raised walkway on the Manngarre rainforest walk passes over the rock. Birriwilk stopped to rest in the East Alligator River: the round rocks in the middle of the River near Cahills Crossing mark the place where she rested. From here she crossed the River into Arnhem Land, where she remains in a quiet water hole. Her visit to Ubirr is part of a Creation pathway that links Ubirr with Manngarre, the East Alligator River, and other places in Arnhem Land.

The sites can be reached by following a 1-kilometre circular walking track from the Ubirr car park. The walk takes about an hour.

In 2009, Traditional owners in the Northern Territory have revealed a piece of rock art they believe is a painting of the first European to cross the Arnhem Land plateau. The artwork is believed to depict Prussian explorer Ludwig Leichhardt as he travelled through Arnhem Land in 1845. The rock art site was rediscovered more than a decade earlier, but traditional owners have only now decided to make the find public. Australian Rock Art Research Association member and tourism coordinator Andy Ralph says the markings suggest it could be the first time the artist encountered a European. He says most rock art images in the area show gun toting buffalo hunters dating to the turn of the 20th century, but this image is much older.

Varying levels of the escarpment, the base and the plateau at the top of this area contain a variety of art sites number over 200. Many are sacred, totemic sites of deeply religious significance and excavations in the area indicate most of the site are over 20,000 years old. The permanence of water in the Deaf Adder Creek ensured the Aboriginal peoples frequented this place regularly as it would have been a good source of fish, water birds and game. Up and down the watercourse around the permanent water holes are extensive rock art galleries depicting a range of ages and styles, from simple red ochre to X-ray style illustrations of animals and the period of European contact. People with animal heads, people shapes like yams and mythological being like the Lightning Man and Rainbow Snake are depicted frequently.

Most of the food species are represented, including Barramundi, which are seen in both their earlier depictions in red ochre and the later X-ray style. Near them are hands painted, stencilled or printed. An extensive gallery of humans and animals in X-ray still is a feature at Djurrugu. Painted some 40 metres along an extended cliff, the often superimposed figures are multi-coloured and number around 80 human figures and 150 animals, the latter representing the region's most important food species. Accompanying them are paintings of mythological beings, sacred ceremonial objects and paintings from the years of European contact.

Hundreds of human and animal figures, located on well protected walls and ceilings of shelters, are located at two major art sites at Mt. Gilruth on its north side. One gallery is at its base, another, some 300 metres long, is in the gorge below. The paintings here are of the early rock art styles and include the now extinct Thylacines, the Tasmanian Tiger.

The Lindner site of Naulabila, a major archaeological site in the area, is situated in a shelter formed by a high sloping boulder. The site had a long history of contact with the local Aborigines; carbon-dating indicates the site was occupied up to 20,000 years ago, and as recently as 1900 it was frequented by Aborigines, both in their day to day activities and for rituals. The site has yielded a variety of stone implements and appears to have been a place where blanks from nearby quarries were brought to be retouched. Access to the Deaf adder Creek area is restricted.

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Malangangherr / Jabiru

The numerous outliers immediately to the south west of the East alligator River Crossing contains Aboriginal art galleries. The Jabiru Dreaming Rock, which overlooks the billabong and occupational sites south of the Border Store, is the most spectacular residual. Malangangherr, the most important site here, is a south-facing recess in a block of massive, sub-horizontally bedded rock. Most of the recess is protected from the rain by an overhanging rock, giving good protection. Occupation has been dated at up to 23,000 years, making it one of the oldest shelters found in Australia so far. Upper midden deposits date from around 6,000 years ago indicating a very long period of occupation.

The midden's upper contents are nearly all shellfish remains from the nearby by estuarine and tidal mudflats. The reduction in the number of shellfish remains with the increasing depth indicates a change in either the Aborigines' eating habits or the environment. The lower section of the midden revealed bone bi-points and uni-points, wallaby incisors polished with use, shells with worn edges, stone points and small rectangular scrapers. Near the bottom were some of the oldest ground stone axes yet found anywhere in the world.

Nourlangie Rock

There are more than 100 significant Aboriginal sites located around and in the interior of the northern sector of Nourlangie - Mt. Brockman massif, a large outlier of the Arnhem Land Plateau. The sites include a number that are sacred, and rock shelters containing paintings, including images of the now extinct Thylacines, the Tasmanian Tiger, burial remains and remnants of past occupation. In addition are a number of quarries and workshops where stone implements were made and a number of stone arrangement sites. The two most culturally and historically significant of the sites, Djitbidjitbi and Datbe, are located on the northern end of Mt. Brockman.

Nourlangie, to the south west, has many occupational and art sites, being close to a plenteous supply of food and water. A major shelter contains stylised images of male and female figures, X-ray style images of fish and mythological heroes, among which is the Lightning Man, believed to be the instigator of thunder, lightning and storms. Adjacent to this gallery are a number of other sites, with paintings of rifles, spirit figures and X-ray fish. Many of the caves in the area were used as burial chambers. Twelve other shelters containing rock art are located at Nangaluwur (see below).

Djerlandjal Rock, to the south of Mr Brockman, has a number of galleries of Aboriginal art. Male and female figures in a variety of positions and activities in one shelter are some of the best preserved in the Alligator River region. Domesticated animals, male and female spirit figures, the Rainbow serpent, stencils and X-ray style animals occur in other shelters in the area. As Mt. Brockman is a sacred site and of great significance to the Aboriginal peoples of the Kakadu region, art sites at this locality have no public access.

Namargon Djadjan

Located on the underside of some massive boulders on both sides of Namargon Creek is a site that is sacred to the local Aborigines. The high face of the escarpment constitutes this Lightning Dreaming site. Two large waterholes near the entrance to the picturesque gorge are both moon dreaming places. Several occupation and rock painting site are located there. Rock engravings, which are not common in the Kakadu region, have been carved into the cliff face above the waterhole. Most of the motifs are of animal tracks. Because the site is sacred, there is no public access.

Djawumbu - Madjawarna

A number of rock paintings, occupation and burial sites are located to the north east of Mudginberri Homestead around the perimeter of the mountains here. A narrow shelter at its southern end, called Malakunanja II contains paintings of traditional Aboriginal items as well as motifs relating to contact with Europeans. These include a buggy wheel, a clothed male figure and paintings of rifles. In the same shelter, archaeological excavations have revealed a blue bead and a pearl button, evidence of contact with Europeans during the 19th or 20th century.

Aboriginal artefacts, shells, human and animal remains were found in the midden below them. Some of these items have been dated, indicating that the site had been in use for around 18,000 years. Among them were three grindstones that the oldest ever recorded in Australia. One of the grindstones was impregnated with red ochre, indicating it was probably used to grind or mix pigment, either for the execution of the paintings on the walls of the shelter or for artefact or body decoration. This type of grindstone is quite common in Arnhem Land but quite rare in other parts of Australia.

Mytho-totemic sites are located in the centre of the mountains' eastern and western sides. The whole area is criss-crossed by dreaming tracks and dotted between them are a number of sacred and burial sites. More than 100 art sites have been found around the escarpment. Motifs found in them include X-ray style, hunter and sorcery human figures and some figures of native bees wax pressed onto the rock. There are also a number of quarry sites in the area from which stone tools have been excavated in archaeological digs.


The Nanguluwur art site, near Nourlangie Rock, is reached via the Gubara road. It is a fairly small gallery suited to people who can handle the 1.7- kilometre one way walk. Many rock art styles are represented at Nanguluwur. There are hand stencils, dynamic figures in large head-dresses carrying spears and boomerangs, representations of Namandi spirits and mythical figures, including Alkajko, a female spirit with four arms and horn-like protuberances. Finely executed paintings of X-ray fish and male and female spirit beings adorn a number of caves and rock shelters.

One contains a painting of a Fly River or pig-nosed turtle which, when first seen by Europeans, was the first evidence of the species living in the area, as it was thought up until that time that it was confined to New Guinea. Subsequently live specimens have been found in the area. Among the more recent art is a frieze of fish and a short-necked turtle painted by Old Nym Djimongurr, a Wardjag man who repainted some of the figures at nearby Nourlangie Rock. In the middle of the shelter is an example of European contact art, a painting of a two-masted sailing ship with anchor chain and a dinghy trailing behind. This art site has public access.

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