Koonalda Cave - Pleistocene Cave Art in Australia

Australia's Deep History

Cliffs on Nullarbor Plain, Australia
Pailin S. Kulvong / Getty Images

Koonalda Cave lies in the middle south of the continent of Australia, in the dry and desolate area called the Nullarbor--Latin for "no trees"--Plain. The raised limestone plateau has always been hot; today the summer range of temperatures is generally between 35-40 degrees centigrade, or 95-104 degrees Fahrenheit; it can reach 50 degrees C (122 degrees F) on some of the hottest days. Total annual rainfall in the plain is only between 150-250 millimeters (6-10 inches).

People don't usually reside in deserts, and so archaeological resources in the Nullarbor are scarce, as you might imagine; only about sixty sites have been investigated, and most of them are below-ground karst caves. The most spectacular of these is Koonalda Cave. Koonalda Cave lies on the western edge of what is now South Australia, and only about 50 kilometers (35 miles) from the ocean; it is about 60 meters (180 feet) below the surface of the plain and stretches at least 250 meters (750 feet) horizontally. To date, investigations have stopped here, at a deep underground lake.

Koonalda Cave History

Archaeological investigations begun in the 1950s by Alexander Gallus indicate that the Koonalda Cave was used by aboriginal peoples, perhaps as a stopping point on an ancient road following the southern Australia coastline. Probably the primary use of the cave was as a flint mine; many nodules have been removed from the walls from the length of its corridor.

In some places, the cave walls are composed of softer material and these are decorated with finger markings, believed to date to more than 20,000 years ago.

Similar markings are found in other limestone areas in Victoria, Western Australia, and southeastern South Australia. Radiocarbon dates of the hearths in Koonalda Cave range from 15,000 to 22,000 years before the present (bp).

This is relatively early for rock art, but not the earliest in Australia, which includes art in the Olary region of Australia, perhaps as old as 30,000 years bp. For comparison, Chauvet Cave in France dates to about 30,000 years ago as well.

Local Aboriginal lore reports that the caves in the western part of the Nullarbor plain were inhabited by evil spirits, who can be heard roaring in the rushing water of the subterranean lakes.


Bednarik, Robert G., Geoffrey D. Aslin, and Elfriede Bedranik 2003 The cave petroglyphs of Australia. Cave Art Research 31-7.

John Mulvaney and Johan Kamminga. 1999. Prehistory of Australia. Smithsonian Institution Press.