1988: The Tasmanian devil in Arnhem Land rock art



1988: The Tasmanian devil in Arnhem Land rock art
Darrell Lew is
In separate papers in 1972, Brandl and Wright published motifs from Aboriginal rock
art which they claimed were representations of the thylacine (Thylacinus
cynocephalus), an animal believed extinct on mainland Australia for at least 3000
years (Milham and Thompson 1976).The existence of apparent thylacine depictions
led McCarthy to suspect that another animal extinct on the mainland, the Tasmanian
Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), might also be found in Aboriginal rock art. Accordingly,
in 1976, he published reproductions of several paintings which he suggested were
representationsof Sarcophilus. Calaby and Lewis (1977) disagreed with McCarthy's
identifications. They presented examples from Arnhem Land rock art which, in their
opinion, more closely resembled the Tasmanian devil than did McCarthy's figures.
Although conclusive depictions of the thylacine have since been discovered (see
Lewis 1977), the paintings claimed to be representations of Sarcophilus remain
open to doubt.
An important underlying issue is how fauna in rock art can best be identified. In a
recent paper (Lewis 1986), 1 examined the methods used by a number of researchers
for identifying fauna in Aboriginal rock art. Two related points emerged from that
exercise. First, the presence of a species-specific feature or combination of features
is essential for correct species identification. Many Arnhem Land paintings are highly
detailed, and conclusive identification is often possible. Second, it seems that in the
rock art of many areas of Australia, including Arnhem Land, the body shape of
animals is more likely to be generalised than 'photographically' realistic making body
shape an unreliable guide to the identity of fauna1 species in rock art.
On the catchment of Jim Jim Creek (Kakadu National Park) in 1979, Dehne
Maclaughlin and I recorded a rock painting which, beyond doubt, depicts a
Tasmanian devil. The painting (Fig. 1 and Fig. 2) is situated on the underside of a
mushroom-shaped boulder in a position that is extremely well protected from water
flow and other weathering effects. The design is in monochrome red with only
surface details indicated, and is therefore consistent with Brand's (1973: 172-3)
broad definition of Mimi-style rock art.
Figure 1. Line drawing rendition of the painting in Figure 2. Note the long
facial vibrissae, dog-like paws, marsupial enitalia, and long
hairs on the dorsal side of the tail a com ination of features
unique to the Tasmanian devil.
The particular combination of features that identifies this painting as Sarcophilus and
differentiates it from other species is as follows. First, the genitalia are clearly
marsupial (testes anterior to penis) which removes the dingo from consideration.
Second, the dog-like paws on the hind feet preclude identification as a macropod
or possum. Third, the long hairs on the dorsal side of the tail and the very long facial
vibrissae are distinctive Sarcophilus characteristics. Additional features include a
narrow flank and exaggerated front legs. Brandl (1973:195, documentation for figure
71) suggests that similarly exaggerated front legs on paintings of thylacines represent
an attempt by Aboriginal artists to emphasise that this is not the more commonly
depicted kangaroo. The combination of these particular features - marsupial
genitalia, dog-like hind foot, long hairs on the dorsal side of the tail and long facial
vibrissae - is peculiar to the Tasmanian devil. As backup evidence, the painting also
has the very bulky form reminiscent of the devil.
At the present time it is not possible to directly date the painting. It is, however,
possible to place the painting within the sequence of Arnhem Land art styles and, by
referring to the most recent age estimates arrived at largely by inference (Lewis 1988),
to place the painting within a broad time period. Brandl's 'early' Mimi art is arguably
the oldest well defined style of Arnhem Land rock art and is likely to be at least 9000
yeas old (Lewis 1988). The painting reproduced here is not executed in the fine line
technique of Brandl's 'early' Mimi art, nor does it have the legs crossed in the
particular perspective of that style (see for example, Brandl 1973:34, figure 70).
Therefore, it probably postdates 'early' Mimi art. Conversely, the complete absence
of even the most basic of X-ray features indicates that this painting probably predates
Figure 2.
Red ochre painting identified as a Tasmanian Devil
(Sarc hilus harrisii). The left-hand ear and facial vibrissae
extegaround a Iedge on the ceiling and are therefore not
visible in this photograph. Length = 83 cm.
the X-ray period. Paintings with X-ray features first became common during the
period that Brandl (1973: 173) called 'late' Mimi art phase 2, and which I have defined
as the broad spearthrower period (Lewis 1988). The broad speanhrower period is
unlikely to have begun eadierthan about 6000 years ago, so the painting reproduced
here is likely to be older than 6000 BP. Consequently, the best estimate on current
evidence would date the painting to between 6000 and 9000 years.
Brandl, E. 1972 Thylacine designs in Arnhem Land rock paintings. Archaeology and Physical
Anthropology in Oceania 7:24-30
Brandl, E. 1973 Australian Aboriginal Paintings in Western and Central Arnhem Land.
Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies: Canberra
Calaby, J.H. and D.J. Lewis 1977 The Tasmanian devil in Arnhem Land rock art. Mankind
1 1 :15O-51
Lewis, D.J. 1977 More striped designs in Arnhem Land rock paintings. Archaeology and
Physical Anthropology in Oceania 1 2:98-111
Lewis, D. 1986 The Dreamtime animals: a reply. Archaeology in Oceania 21 :l4043
Lewis, D. 1988 The rock paintings of Arnhem Land, Australia: social, ecological, and material
culture change in the Post-Glacial period. British Archaeological Reports International
Series 4 15
McCarthy, F.D. 1976 The Tasmanian devil in Aboriginal rock art. Mankind 10: 181-2
Milham, P. and P. Thompson 1976 Relative antiquity of human occupation and extinct fauna
at Madura Cave, southeast Western Australia. Mankind 10:175-80
Wright, B.J. 1972 Rock engravings of striped mammals; the Pilbara region, Western Australia.
Archaeology and Physical Anthropology in Oceania 7 :1 4-23
C/o Department of Prehistory and Anthropology
Australian National University
Canberra ACT 2601