Mysteries of the Kimberley Coast

Mark Buckingham

Mysteries of the Kimberley Coast

Mark Buckingham

The rugged, dramatic landscape of Australia’s Kimberley has been used as a canvas by Aboriginal artists for at least 39,500 years. The age and complexity of the Kimberley rock art sequence is rivaled only by that found in neighboring regions of northern Australia.

Shrouded in mystery, paintings of the ‘elegant style’ are so old that no one really knows just who were the original creators. Early theories suggested a likeness to rock art in South Africa, Indonesia or even ancient Egypt, but the most likely explanation is that these evocative images belong to a much older, discontinued cultural group of indigenous Australians. The Kimberley Aborigines of today do not claim any ties to the paintings, regarding them as the work of a bird, which pecked at the rock until its beak began to bleed.

To enter one of these prehistoric galleries and ponder the inspiration behind the timeworn projections is mesmerizing to the core. Detailed scenes of dancing or hunting can cover an entire wall, with each human figure adorned in an array of tassels, boomerangs, body regalia and elaborate headdress. The exact mixture used to paint the figures also remains a mystery. The paintings are so old that, in most cases, the paint has become part of the underlying sandstone. Ochre is almost certainly part of the deep, red stain, and it has also been suggested that human blood may have been used in the mixture, as it has in other cultures. If this is true, modern DNA analysis could help solve the mystery of the origin of the artists.

The artwork provides an insightful and captivating window into a lost civilization.

One tries to imagine what life was like for the protagonists and what dominated their physical world. How they used the raging, 12-meter tides to their advantage. The knowledge they had of the crocodile, the whale and the kangaroo. The grace with which they moved along the towering, rusty cliff face. The exact same cliff face that my companions and I had just struggled with.

The world was different then. Pollen preserved in beeswax art suggests that the flora has changed significantly and much of the Megafauna of the era has since been lost to extinction. The sea level was over 100m lower than today, as the Earth shivered under the sway of the last ice age. As the ice retreated and the sea level rose, thousands of coastal art sites were swallowed up by the impending sea.

Today, a wealth of rock art awaits rediscovery by the modern explorer. There is virtually no road access into the Kimberley coast due to the jumbled terrain, so the best way to take in the rock art is by small ship. This mode also allows the full allure of the Kimberley Coast to be experienced. Hulking, red geology, prolific wildlife on land and in sea, towering gorges and the plunging waterfalls that created them, world-class offshore diving and unique tidal phenomena are all within reach.

The remoteness of the Kimberley Coast has allowed her secrets to be kept from all but a select few. It is this same isolation that stands the enigmatic, ‘elegant style’ rock paintings in good stead to fend off the usual pollutants of the modern world. There is still much to be discovered about the paintings and the Kimberley in general, which not only adds to the charm of the present, but makes one wonder what other secrets lie entombed in this remarkable land.

Footnote:
A Marine Biologist and Zoologist by profession, Mark Buckingham resides in Cairns, Australia. He has been freelance lecturing and SCUBA diving for many years with several expedition companies. Mark also runs his own adventure travel company, Paradigm Expeditions, and consults to a wide range of industries on Kimberley issues.