Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Ubirr (ca. 40,000?–present)

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The rock art of the Australian Aborigines represents the longest continuously practiced series of artistic traditions anywhere in the world. The site of Ubirr in Arnhem Land, northern Australia, contains one of the most impressive assemblages of Aboriginal rock painting, ranging from the earliest periods to works created within living memory. A favored camping place during the annual wet season, the rock faces at Ubirr have been painted and repainted for millennia. The sequence of rock art at Ubirr and other sites in Arnhem Land has been divided into three periods: Pre-Estuarine (ca. 40,000?–6000 B.C.), Estuarine (ca. 6000 B.C.–500 A.D.), and Fresh Water (ca. 500 A.D.–present). These classifications are based on the changing style and iconography of the images.

Pre-Estuarine rock art is characterized by a variety of images in red ocher pigments. In historic times, such images were created with brushes made from bark, feathers, or the chewed ends of sticks, and it is likely similar tools were used in the past. Among the most distinctive images are the animated stick figures of the Dynamic Figure tradition, which are often depicted clad in elaborate regalia and shown participating in hunting and other activities. Some contemporary Aboriginals identify these figures as mimi, slender spirits who taught humans to hunt and paint during the Dreaming, or creation period. In present-day Aboriginal belief, many Dynamic Figure images are said to have been painted by mimi rather than humans. Pre-Estuarine rock paintings also include depictions of extinct animals and enigmatic beings that combine the features of humans and wild yams.

Rock painting had several functions in historic times. Images were created to increase the population of game animals or for use in magic. Depictions of important Dreaming beings are common, as well as secular paintings made for amusement. Although the original significance of Ubirr's prehistoric images is unknown, they likely had similar functions.

Eric Kjellgren
Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

General view of the site of Ubirr in the Arnhem Land region of northern Australia. For millennia, Aboriginal people have camped under the rock overhang during the wet season and adorned the rock surfaces with paintings. Situated high up on the rock face at Ubirr, this painting is believed to depict the Thylacine, or "Tasmanian Tiger." The presence of the Thylacine, extinct in the region for thousands of years, is evidence of the antiquity of Aboriginal rock art traditions. Early Dynamic Figure painting from Ubirr depicting an individual with upraised arms. Some contemporary Aboriginals assert that such images depict the mimi spirits who first taught humans to paint. The mimi are also believed to have painted many of these ancient images themselves. Located on the underside of a rock overhang, this ancient group of Yam figures is in a remarkable state of preservation. The significance of these unusual images, which combine features of human beings with those of hairy, wild yams that were (and are) an important source of food, is unknown. An early painting at Ubirr showing a running male figure with hunting gear. The thin, sticklike limbs and animated stance are characteristic of the Dynamic Figure tradition. The original significance of these figures is unknown but some are arranged in groups that appear to depict ancient hunting practices or ritual activities.

Prehistoric site of Ubirr, in Arnhem Land.