PREHISTORIC CAVE MARKINGS: Prelude to an Australian Seminar

By Kevin J. Sharpe


Driving towards Koonalda Cave for the first time, I became philosophical about the abandoned car bodies left to rot in the sun. But I still feel shaken by the dead wombats. These endearing Australian marsupials, ordinarily never seen because they are nocturnal, were dead in their hundreds. The bodies littering the roadside were not the victims of hit-and-run drivers. The killer was the drought experienced on the Nullarbor Plain that year.

      The hairy-nosed wombat is a living fossil, looking half-pig and half-bear. It loves the desert. Bulky with dark fur, it has strong legs and shoulders. I could see mounds of yellow soil marking their presence among the sparse salt- and bluebushes. Residents in the 1870s recall Aborigines coming from hundreds of miles to feast and gorge themselves on them. Sometimes they would spin the fur into a thread using two sticks, and from this weave garments.

      Sheep on the various stations or ranches along the way were also victims of the drought. In fact the grazier at Koonalda had not one live sheep left and was working in a road gang. Slowly rotting carcasses were everywhere. When I returned to Koonalda three years later, I found the contrast staggering. Fully-stocked, well-grassed stations showed no sign of the devastation.

      It was exciting to leave the road at the Koonalda homestead and shoot off across the Plain towards Koonalda Cave. The bumpy wheel track over rough limestone passed by the occasional stunted mallee and samphire trees. The gray of bluebush, saltbush and tufted spear grass clothed the dull gray earth. This budding archaeologist, however, could not stay preoccupied with his surroundings for long. I was not ready for the crater hidden by a slight rise in the ground. The Koonalda sinkhole, about 200 feet across and 100 deep, lay before me, three miles from the homestead.

      Leading off from the doline or sinkhole punched into the Plain, Koonalda Cave goes in three directions. The first entered is the northwest chamber. It descends from the base of the northwest end of the doline into a 300 by 200 foot chamber with a flat bottom. Then it ascends 100 feet to the upper chamber: a 200-feet long, boulder-strewn and undulating passage which concludes with a rather low "squeeze". The north passage starts near the toe of the entrance slope and is around 1800 feet long. It contains several lakes up to 90 feet deep. The west passage leaves the second passage after a few hundred feet and culminates in a lake. Over the lake is a dome perforated high-up by the end of the "squeeze" of the northwest passage.

      On my first visit to Koonalda, I was to help make a detailed photographic and drawn record of the well-known wall markings. Finger scrawls and lines engraved with a hard object fan out over large areas at the back of the upper chamber. Somewhat daunted by the project, I spent my first few days trying to work out where to start and how to proceed.

      While picking our way between large boulders to reach the marked area, my companion noticed fine lines on one of them. On the second day of recording she decided to look at these marked stones. The first which came to her attention stood halfway along the path through the upper chamber. It was smoothly rounded and buried deep in the cave floor. Most striking about it was some half-dozen deeply-engraved parallel lines. They were at a slight angle to the vertical about an inch apart, and six to seven inches long. The ancient red dust which filled them meant they could not be recent. Moreover, they appeared too definite to be part of the limestone's structure and too ordered for animals to have made them. Stylistically, they also looked like the larger scratches on the walls.

      After blowing away some of the dust that filled the markings, my eyes wandered to the stone behind. There were more lines. We began to blow on the second stone where the markings were finer and more complex than those on the first. Ahead of this was another marked stone. And yet another.

      I abandoned the recording of the wall markings. The rest of my time on that visit I spent discerning the extent of the engravings on the floor boulders. Even when exploring the crevices under the boulder floor I found marked stones.

      The lines were not all we found. Sitting on a high stone was a twisted piece of mallee root, charred at one end and covered with ancient dust. The remains of a torch, it sat where put 20,000-or-more years ago. A pile of charred twigs in a cup-like depression is probably the remains of torch made of bound twigs dipped in animal grease. I found the skull of maybe a giant species of kangaroo - it could not have hopped all the way into there! Perhaps strangest of all, under a loose flat stone I uncovered a curved stone "cache" containing vertebrae.

      These findings were from rituals people performed in this Cave twenty thousand or more years ago. Two hundred centuries past, Aborigines drew on and engraved the walls and floor rocks of Koonalda Cave with sharp objects and with fingers. They extracted flint here with which they made stone tools. They engaged in these activities to the light of torches the remains of which still sit on the rocks from where they illumined the scene.

      Koonalda is a challenge. Here is a very large volume of prehistoric markings. What can we say about them or do with them? What can we learn about the engravers from their markings?


With Robert Bednarik, an expert in Koonalda-type prehistoric markings, I will lead a Union Seminar to Australia in July 1991. We will visit caves containing lines such as in Koonalda - but sites which are much more accessible than Koonalda! Our question is broad: what do such sites and artifacts tell us about the minds of our prehistoric ancestors? The deadline for registering is 15 March 1991.




1. The Koonalda Cave Sinkhole in the Nullarbor Plain, Australia.


2. Finger markings on the wall of the upper chamber of Koonalda