Discover Kakadu's Indigenous Rock Art
In Kakadu National Park, Ubirr is home to one of the most accessible and extraordinary galleries of indigenous rock art, as explored by Lee Atkinson.
Time stands still beneath the stony overhangs on the edge of Arnhem Land Escarpment. Here, where there are six seasons in each year not four, and the rocks are hundreds of millions of years old, the people of Kakadu have been recording their stories on the rock walls at places like Ubirr for more than 50,000 years.
Art inspired by natureVibrant pictures of barramundi and long-necked turtles, goannas, echidnas, wallabies, waterfowl, yams and mussels –painted in ochre, clay and mineral pigments mixed with blood and fat –cover the walls. There’s even a painting of a thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), which scientists believe has been extinct on the Australian mainland for close to 3,000 years. Many are done in the X-ray style unique to Arnhem Land, showing the internal organs and bones of the animals.
The MimiThe Bininj/Mungguy believe that many of the older paintings were done by spirits known as the Mimi, so slender that they lived in the cracks between the rocks so the wind wouldn’t blow them away.
The Mabuyu Hunter
Many of the older paintings are obscured by the work of artists that followed, because the most important part of painting is not about the decoration, but the story that it tells. Like the tale of the Mabuyu hunter, another painting thought to be more than 2,000 years old. Mabuyu was a fisherman, and is depicted carrying spears and a bag full of fish. One day, after a successful fishing trip, some greedy people stole his catch and hid the fish, lying to Mabuyu about what they had done.
Mabuyu waited until they fell asleep after feasting on his fish, then rolled a huge rock in front of the entrance to their cave, trapping them inside. Unable to escape, the men who stole the fish –along with their wives and children –all died. When the rangers tell the story, it’s easy to imagine generations of children sitting spellbound as they learned about the consequences of stealing food and telling lies.