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Australia's Ancient Warriors: Changing Depictions of Fighting in the Rock Art of Arnhem Land, N.T.

  • Paul Taçon (a1) and Christopher Chippindale (a2)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 22 December 2008

Depictions of battle scenes, skirmishes and hand-to-hand combat are rare in hunter-gatherer art and when they do occur most often result from contact with agriculturalist or industrialized invaders. In the Arnhem Land region of the Northern Territory of Australia we have been documenting rare depictions of fighting and are able to show that there has been a long tradition of warrior art. At least three phases have been identified and in each of them groups of hunter-gatherers are shown in combat. The oldest are at least 10,000 years old, and constitute the most ancient depictions of fighting from anywhere in the world, while the newest were produced as recently as early this century. Significantly, a pronounced change in the arrangement of figures began with the second, middle phase — beginning perhaps about 6000 years ago. This appears to be associated with increased social complexity and the development of the highly complicated kinship relationships that persist in Arnhem Land today. Evidence from physical anthropological, archaeological and linguistic studies supports the idea of the early development of a highly organized society of the type more commonly associated with agriculturalists or horticulturalists.

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