Interaction between humans and megafauna depicted in Australian rock art?

Kim Akerman

Figure 1
Figure 1. The northern Kimberley region of Western Australia,
an area rich in ancient rock art.
Click to enlarge.

In March 2009 Tim Willing and I reported the existence of a sizeable painting of a large striped animal, discovered near the western shore of the Admiralty Gulf in the north-west Kimberley region of Western Australia, that we believed represented the extinct Marsupial Lion Thylacoleo carnifex (Akerman & Willing 2009). Subsequently, Don MacLeod, a friend resident in the remote northern Kimberley (Figure 1), forwarded an image of a painting that seems to depict a hunter in the act of spearing, or fending off, a striped animal somewhat larger than himself. MacLeod had originally been shown the painting by Mr Ray Lanaghan, who works seasonally in the Kimberley.

The Drysdale River image

Located on an isolated pinnacle on the lower reaches of the Drysdale River, the art work consists of a human engaging with an animal (Figure 2). A second human figure, seen isolated to the lower left of the animal, may possibly be part of the entire composition, but will not be discussed further in this paper. The new painting, unlike the 1830mm long Thylacoleo painting described by Akerman and Willing (2009), is exceptionally small: the entire composition is only c.500mm across. As the original set of images sent to me was of reasonably high resolution I was able to create a faithful black and white image of the hunter/animal combination (Figure 3) and offer the following reading of the image: Figure 3 shows a large, striped animal with a long tail and massive forequarters. The position of the penis, shown beneath the tail indicates that a male marsupial rather than a placental animal, such as a dog, is being depicted. To the right of the chest of the animal is a human figure which appears to be spearing, or fending off, the animal by means of a long spear with many, uniserially arranged barbs. The image is thought to have been made in a single event, with an economy of action. Using a brush charged with a relatively dry load of pigment, the artist has painted the spearshaft and barbs, and the arms of the hunter with a series of single strokes; the tail and stripes on the animal are similarly executed. The head and thoracic region of the animal and rear and forelimbs are filled in using numerous strokes, as are the head, body and legs of the hunter.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Panel showing hunter apparently spearing, or fending off, a
large striped animal. Drysdale River, Kimberley, Western Australia
(image courtesy of D. MacLeod).
Click to enlarge.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Detailed black and white image taken from the original
picture sent by D. MacLeod. Total width approximately 300 mm.
Click to enlarge.

The hunter grasps the spear with both hands as if to either stab the animal or fend off an attack. Multibarbed spears are common in the early phases of the rock art of the region but are not present in the more recent rock art (Walsh & Morwood 1999). Barbed spears of any type were not used in northern Kimberley in the early historic period. The usual spear form was one with a composite reed and hardwood shaft tipped with a bifacially pressure-flaked, serrated edged stone point - the so-called 'Kimberley Point' (Akerman & Bindon 1996; Akerman 2006). That the picture is of some antiquity is further reinforced by the fact that the hunter is using the spear without a spearthrower. As Walsh and Morwood place the appearance of the spearthrower in rock art at about the Clothes Peg Figure (CPF) Period (1999: 49-50), it is possible that the Drysdale painting belongs to an even earlier phase of the rock art of the region. Although simply depicted, the human figure appears either to wear a simple conical headdress, or perhaps the hair bound into a chignon.

In 1996 Welch addressed the issue of simple human figures in the rock art of the Kimberley, finding that they appear virtually throughout the entire sequence of art from the earliest to most recent (Welch 1996: 73). Commenting at my request on the Drysdale River image, Welch noted: 'I would describe it as a "simple figure painted at the time of the Tasselled Figures" or you might say a "simple figure from the Bradshaw Period"' (Welch pers. comm. 25 June 2009).

There is a tendency, in much of the rock art of northern Australia in compositions showing humans and animals interacting, to depict the faunal component of the composition as significantly larger than the human element (Welch 2004: 47-56), Welch suggests that the disparity in size between human and animal may reflect any of a number of possible scenarios that reflect the possible mythic or ceremonial significance of the primary image, its importance as a food source, or an attempt by the artist to indicate perspective (Welch 2004: 55).

I consider that the Drysdale River composition clearly shows either a hunter attacking or defending himself from an animal. There is no separation between human and animal in the picture - they are intimately linked via the spear. It may be that the animal is, or rather was, larger than the human and the scene depicts an actual event.

In some of the early rock art previously considered to represent hunting or fighting scenes spears are either carried in one hand, or appear to be lying behind or lodged in the victim and separate from the spear thrower (see Donaldson 2007: 21, Figure 1.44). This suggests that spears were not thrust but thrown at their targets. While it is possible that the hunter is depicted attacking the animal, the two-handed grasp with which he holds the spear, and the apparent buckling of the spear as it makes contact with the animal's chest, suggests that he is in fact defending himself from an attack.

What of the animal itself? Recent practice has considered all large striped, quadrupedal animal forms depicted in ancient rock art to be the so-called Tasmanian tiger or thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), a medium to large, dog-like marsupial, with striped hindquarters. There is evidence however, that humans in the Kimberley were familiar with the now extinct marsupial lion Thylacoleo carnifex (Akerman & Willing 2009). There is also a matter of comparative size. Thylacoleo carnifex is estimated to weigh between 130 and 160kg, while a large thylacine had a maximum weight of about 45kg (Wroe 1999: 60-1, 2000: 49).

Faced with newly discovered rock art images a reconsideration of the identity of the animals depicted in the rock art of the region may be apposite: some, previously presumed to be thylacines, may have to be re-assessed. A copy of the image was sent to palaeontologists Rod Wells and John Long, who both informed me that the animal appeared to be more likely to represent a thylacoleo than a thylacine. Steve Webb, an archaeologist familiar with Australia's ancient megafauna, provided a similar opinion.

Figure 4
Figure 4. Close-up of the Drysdale River animal showing massive forequarters in relation to the slender hind limbs.
Click to enlarge.

Figure 5
Figure 5. Drawing of the detail of the Drysdale River animal. Approximate size 150mm.
Click to enlarge.

On isolating the Drysdale River animal from the composition and focusing on it in isolation (Figures 4 & 5) we see an animal with a relatively long body and long tail with deep chest and quite massive forelimb and front paw. The head is small in relation to the rest of the animal. As noted earlier it is a male and is striped across the rear half of the body. It is possible that the animal depicted is a thylacine - albeit a very robust one. In my own view, however, a thylacoleo or Marsupial Lion is represented here (for relevant aspects of the anatomy of this animal see Akerman & Willing 2009).

If this is the case we have here a second picture of this unusual element of the now extinct suite of Australian megafauna. Regardless of species, it is the only example of Australian rock art that I am aware of in which humans and extinct marsupials are shown unmistakably interacting.

There has been much debate about the role played by the ancestors of the Australian Aboriginals in the extinction of the Australian megafauna. Important papers on this debate in the last decade include those by Roberts et al. (2001), Wroe and Fields (2001), and Gillespie (2004). The argument seems to rest on whether there is any real evidence for the late survival of megafauna. One also needs to be reminded of the definition of megafauna provided by Roberts et al. (2001: 1888): 'Twenty-three of the 24 genera of Australian land animals weighing more than 45kg (which, along with a few smaller species constituted the "megafauna") were extinct by the late Quaternary' (my emphasis).

While Aboriginal people were possibly not killing the big end of the megafaunal spectrum it must be remembered that prior to the introduction of metal, Australian Aborigines were successfully taking the larger kangaroos (Red Kangaroos may weigh up to 90kg, Grey Kangaroos up to 70kg and Antelopine Kangaroos up to 49 kg) as well as the marine dwelling dugong (420 kg) with spears and harpoons with wooden points.

If, as Roberts et al. (2001) and Gillespie (2004) suggest, the Australian megafauna was wiped out by 45000-46000 years ago then we should consider the possibility that the painting may be of similar antiquity. My own view, however, is that it is more likely to belong in the more recent, but as yet undated, early Bradshaw (or Gwion Gwion) phase of early Australian Aboriginal rock art. The only date (17500±1800 years BP) available at present for the early art of the Kimberley was obtained using OSL dating of mud-wasp nests overlaying a painting '...which looks archaic, and may be related to the Bradshaw style' (Roberts et al 1997: 697). It is more likely that the age of the Drysdale River composition would fall between 15000 and 22000 years ago (or about the time of the last glacial Maximum) rather than the much older 46000 years suggested for megafaunal extinction. In this case it may be that some megafauna did hang on in wetter areas of the continent until more recent times as suggested by Wells (1985: 228 for Thylacoleo carnifex) and Wroe, Field and Fullagar (2002: 60-1). If such a carnivore as thylacoleo was still present in the landscape at this period it suggests that megafaunal prey species were also present. Attention is drawn to the painting found in a shelter at Deaf Adder Creek in western Arnhem Land, identified as a marsupial tapir (Palorchestes azeal) and described by Chaloupka (1993: 100). Following this line of argument even further, it may be that, as natural prey species declined, thylacoleos turned to humans as a source of food - and the Drysdale River composition reflects such an encounter.


The Drysdale River painting may be the first direct evidence of an interaction between a human and a now-extinct animal in ancient Australia. The scene can be interpreted as a hunting scene but it is equally possible that it shows a human defending himself from an attacking animal. While it is possible that the painting depicts a thylacine, the likelihood that it represents a thylacoleo must be seriously considered. If so, this would be the second picture found in the early rock art of the Kimberley showing this animal and it may be that more such images await discovery or identification.


First and foremost I would like to thank Gertrude Waina as representative of the Waina family of Kalumburu - the traditional owners of the area in which the painting is located - for allowing me to write up this marvelous and important piece of rock art. I thank Father Anscar McPhee of the Kalumburu Mission for facilitating communications between myself and the Waina family. I also wish to thank Ray Lanaghan and Don MacLeod for finding the painting and drawing my attention to it. David Welch generously gave me his opinion of the stylistic affiliations of the human figure. John Long, of the Museum of Victoria, Melbourne, Rod Wells, of the School of Biological Sciences, Flinders University, South Australia and Steve Webb, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Bond University, Queensland, examined the images and generously gave me their considered opinions on the identity of the animal depicted. I thank them all for their interest and support.


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