Mt Chambers Gorge + rock markings

There was a side gorge with open-air Adnyamathanha rock carvings or Yura malka by the Adnyamathanha people just past the western entrance to Mt Chambers Gorge. These rocks carvings (peroglyphs) were scratched grooves on rock surfaces on the gorge’s cliff faces and they consisted of simple geometric motifs or shapes (circles, concentric circles, lines). They have been interpreted by archaeologists as being part of the Panaramitee style or tradition, the core region of which lies in the geographical area between the Flinders Ranges and Broken Hill. These Yura malka are usually seen as both rock art and as archaeological relics of an ancient Australia: ie., as probably belonging to the late glacial Pleistocene or the early post-glacial Holocene (approx 10,000 years ago).

This was after the Ice Age which peaked around 20,000 years ago. Lakes had dried up, forests disappeared, deserts expanded, animals went extinct and vast swathes of the Australian land mass would have been simply uninhabitable ie., became too dry to live in. People contracted towards better-watered refuges around the coastline and in upland areas such as the Macdonell and Flinders Ranges in the interior. Sea levels fell more than 120 metres during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), exposing much of the continental shelf and connecting mainland Australia to Papua New Guinea and Tasmania. Then the weather warmed, the rains increased, the ice melted, the sea levels rose and Australia began to experience a a drier and more variable climate from around 5,000 years ago.

Some of the rock carvings were very weathered and worn and the circles had enclosed bars or lines within them. The rock of the gorge wall looked to be very hard. Was the rock metamorphosed quartzite? The petroglyphs are resistant to weathering processes especially on hard rock types in arid and semi-arid regions.

From what I can gather Leslie Maynard held that the older, non-figurative, geometric art was older than the figurative tradition (simple and complex). This interpretation looks at rock art through an evolutionary lens where simple motifs were used in the beginning, and they eventually became more complex. The Panaramitee style is best understood as a composite that includes Pleistocene components but also covers the entire Holocene; in fact petroglyphs of the non-figurative style were still produced in the 20th century.

Warnayaka Art Centre at Lajamanu

We arrived at Lajamanu at 2am Friday morning from Alice Springs via Yuendumu having driven for 6 hours at night through the  Tanami Desert  along the Tamani Road,  then turning onto  the track to Lajamanu after the gold mine at the Granites (operated by Newmont Mining)  and at Tanami.  I wondering how mining on Warlpiri land, with its establishing and fixing boundaries for mining exploration  was changing the Warlpiri’s conception of country. Mining, after all,  commodifies the country and it associated conception of owning and gaining profit from it is a very different from the way  that the Warlpiri define place, looking after country, and custodianship.

We were lucky as  the wet season hadn’t started and, fortunately for us,   the dozen or more  floodways along  the Lajamanu Track were still  dry. We stayed in the back room of the  Learning Centre, which is supported,   and run by,  the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education. A key gathering place at Lajamanu is the Warnayaka Art Centre where Warlpiri artists  preserve, protect and pass on the cultural significance of Warlpiri culture to the younger generation. The context is the tragic realisation  by the Walpirri elders that  the youth were losing direction, community stories were not being shared and interest in learning and education – both mainstream and Indigenous – are  decreasing.

The Art Centre, which provides a significant source of income for the community,  is one way the Warlpiri are grappling with the difficult issues associated with coming up with a compromise  between traditional culture and modernity. The painter’s  compromise, for instance,   is  premised on  preserving  some traditional elements and incorporating  innovation from white art  culture in the form of  the techniques of  modernist abstraction.  

 Warnayaka Art Centre

Warnayaka Art Centre

These are  desperate times for  the Walrpiri as they become modern through their fractured experiences:  they  need to get all these stories out  but some of these stories have only one or two elderly people still looking after them.

One feature that  differentiates Warlpiri  culture from our western one is  the continuity with local landscapes or countryscapes. These countryscapes are viewed from above–eg.,  the  perspective of the eye of the eagle.  The entirety of country, including its environmental features, its topography and landmarks, its flora and fauna, its water sources, was (and for many, still is) deeply etched and encoded with meaning, and connected by powerful narratives.