Nawarla Gabarnmang (Australia)

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Oldest Cave Painting in Australia

Northern Entrance of Nawarla Gabarnmang
Northern Entrance of Nawarla Gabarnmang. Photo © Bruno David; published in Antiquity in 2013

Nawarla Gabarnmang is a large rockshelter located in remote Jawoyn Aboriginal country in southwestern Arnhem Land, Australia. Within it is the oldest painting yet radiocarbon dated in Australia. On the roof and pillars are hundreds of vivid interwoven shapes of humans, animals, fish and phantasmagorical figures, all painted in radiant red, white, orange and black pigments representing generations of artworks spanning thousands of years. This photo essay describes some of the initial results from the ongoing investigations of this extraordinary site.

Nawarla Gabarnmang's entrance is 400 meters (1,300 feet) above sea level, and about 180 m (590 ft) above the surrounding plains on the Arnhem Land plateau. The bedrock of the cave is part of the Kombolgie Formation, and the initial opening was created by differential erosion of horizontally stratified, hard orthoquartzite bedrock interbedded with softer sandstone. The resulting plan is a 19-m (52.8-ft) wide gallery that opens to daylight on the north and south, with a sub-horizontal ceiling ranging between 1.75 to 2.45 m (5.7-8 ft) above the cave floor.


This photo essay is based on several recent publications of the rockshelter, which is currently still under excavation. Photos and additional information were provided by Dr. Bruno David, and a few were originally published in the journal Antiquity in 2013 and are reprinted here with their kind permission. Please see the bibliography for published sources about Nawarla Gabarnmang.

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L'Aménagement: Rearranging the Furniture

Painted Ceilings and Pillars of Nawarla Gabarnmang
Painted Ceilings and Pillars of Nawarla Gabarnmang. © Jean-Jacques Delannoy and the Jawoyn Association; published in Antiquity, 2013

The ceiling's splendid paintings are mesmerizing, but they only represent a part of the furniture of the cave: furniture that was apparently rearranged by the occupants over the past 28,000 years and more. Those generations of paintings signal how the cave has been socially engaged for thousands of years.

Across the more open part of the cave is a natural grid of 36 stone pillars, pillars which are predominantly the remnants of the erosive effect on fissure lines within the bedrock. However, archaeological investigations have shown to researchers that some of the pillars collapsed and were removed, some of them were reshaped or even shifted, and some of the ceiling slabs were taken down and repainted by the people who used the cave.

Tool marks on the ceiling and pillars clearly illustrate that part of the purpose for the modifications was to facilitate the quarrying of rock from the cave. But researchers are convinced that the living space of the cave was purposely fitted-out, one of the entrances significantly widened and the cave redecorated more than once. The research team uses the French term aménagement to encapsulate the notion of the apparently purposeful modification of the cave's living space.

Please see the bibliography for sources about Nawarla Gabarnmang.

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Dating the Cave Paintings

Buried Ceiling Fragment at Nawarla Gabarnmang
Professor Bryce Barker examines a painted slab extracted from Square O. In the background, Ian Moffat uses Ground Penetrating Radar to map the subsurface of the site. © Bruno David

The cave floor is covered with approximately 70 centimeters (28 inches) of soil, a mix of ash from fires, fine aeolian sand and silt, and locally fragmented sandstone and quartzite rocks. Seven horizontal stratigraphic layers have been identified in excavation units in various parts of the cave to date, with generally good chrono-stratigraphic integrity among and between them. Much of the top six stratigraphic units are believed to have been deposited during the past 20,000 years.

However, researchers are convinced that the cave began to be painted much earlier. A slab of painted rock fell to the floor before the sediment was deposited, and adhering to the back of it was a small quantity of ash. This ash was radiocarbon-dated, returning a date of 22,965+/-218 RCYBP, which calibrates to 26,913-28,348 calendar years before the present (cal BP). If the researchers are correct, the ceiling must have been painted before 28,000 years ago. It is possible that the ceiling was painted much earlier than that: radiocarbon dates on charcoal recovered from the base of the deposits from Stratigraphic Unit 7 in that excavation square (with older dates occurring in other squares nearby) range between 44,100 and 46,278 cal BP.

Support for a regional tradition of painting this long ago comes from other sites in Arnhem Land: faceted and use-striated hematite crayons have been recovered at Malakunanja II, in layers dated between 45,000-60,000 years old, and from Nauwalabila 1 at approximately 53,400 years old. Nawarla Gabarnmang is the first evidence of how those pigments may have been used.

Please see the bibliography for sources about Nawarla Gabarnmang.

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Rediscovering Nawarla Gabarnmang

Ceiling Above Square P
The densely painted ceiling above Square P . Benjamin Sadier setting up Lidar mapping of site. Photo ©Bruno David

Nawarla Gabarnmang was brought to scholarly attention when Ray Whear and Chris Morgan of the Jawoyn Association survey team noted the unusually large rockshelter in 2007, during a routine aerial survey of the Arnhem Land plateau. The team landed their helicopter and were stunned at the remarkable beauty of the painted gallery.

Anthropological discussions with regional senior elders Wamud Namok and Jimmy Kalarriya revealed the name of the site as Nawarla Gabarnmang, meaning "the place of the hole in the rock". The traditional owners of the site were identified as Jawoyn clan Buyhmi, and clan elder Margaret Katherine was brought to the site.

Excavation units were opened in Nawarla Gabarnmang beginning in 2010, and they will continue for some time, supported by a range of remote sensing techniques including Lidar and Ground Penetrating Radar. The archaeological team were invited to undertake the research by the Jawoyn Association Aboriginal Corporation; the work is supported by Monash University, the Ministère de la Culture (France), the University of Southern Queensland, the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (SEWPaC), the Indigenous Heritage Program, the Australian Research Council Discovery QEII Fellowship DPDP0877782 and Linkage Grant LP110200927, and the EDYTEM laboratories of the Université de Savoie (France). The excavation process is being filmed by Patricia Marquet and Bernard Sanderre.

Please see the bibliography for sources about Nawarla Gabarnmang.

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Sources for Further Information

The Archaeological Team at Nawarla Gabarnmang
The archaeological team at Nawarla Gabarnmang. From left to right, Professor Jean-Michel Geneste, Dr Bruno David, Professor Jean-Jacques Delannoy. Photo © Bernard Sanderre


The following sources were accessed for this project. Thanks to Dr. Bruno David for assistance with this project and to him and Antiquity for making the photos available to us.

For additional information, see the Project Website at Monash Univesity, which includes some of the video shot at the cave.

David B, Barker B, Petchey F, Delannoy J-J, Geneste J-M, Rowe C, Eccleston M, Lamb L, and Whear R. 2013. A 28,000 year old excavated painted rock from Nawarla Gabarnmang, northern Australia. Journal of Archaeological Science 40(5):2493-2501.

David B, Geneste J-M, Petchey F, Delannoy J-J, Barker B, and Eccleston M. 2013. How old are Australia's pictographs? A review of rock art dating. Journal of Archaeological Science 40(1):3-10.

David B, Geneste J-M, Whear RL, Delannoy J-J, Katherine M, Gunn RG, Clarkson C, Plisson H, Lee P, Petchey F et al. 2011. Nawarla Gabarnmang, a 45,180±910 cal BP Site in Jawoyn Country, Southwest Arnhem Land Plateau. Australian Archaeology 73:73-77.

Delannoy J-J, David B, Geneste J-M, Katherine M, Barker B, Whear RL, and Gunn RG. 2013.The social construction of caves and rockshelters: Chauvet Cave (France) and Nawarla Gabarnmang (Australia). Antiquity 87(335):12-29.

Geneste J-M, David B, Plisson H, Delannoy J-J, and Petchey F. 2012. The Origins of Ground-edge Axes: New Findings from Nawarla Gabarnmang, Arnhem Land (Australia) and Global Implications for the Evolution of Fully Modern Humans. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 22(01):1-17.

Geneste J-M, David B, Plisson H, Delannoy J-J, Petchey F, and Whear R. 2010. Earliest Evidence for Ground-Edge Axes: 35,400±410 cal BP from Jawoyn Country, Arnhem Land. Australian Archaeology 71:66-69.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Nawarla Gabarnmang (Australia)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 25). Nawarla Gabarnmang (Australia). Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Nawarla Gabarnmang (Australia)." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).