PREHISTORIC CAVE MARKINGS: Prelude to an Australian Seminar
By Kevin J. Sharpe
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
Leading off from the doline or sinkhole
punched into the Plain,
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 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
2. Finger markings on the wall of the upper chamber of Koonalda