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Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime Stories, Oral History and Rock Art Sheds Light on Extinct Species

Years ago my family took me on a trip to the gorgeous wilderness of the Grampians National Park ( in the western side of Victoria, Australia. It is a breath taking place. It is also known for it's beautiful Aboriginal rock art. One site is known as Bunjil's Shelter. Bunjil is a great spirit, ancestor and creator in many Koori stories and traditions, and often takes the form of an eagle. The rock shelter contains paintings thousands of years old, showing a seated man Bunjil,  and his 2 dogs. You can't tell from this picture and as the site is sealed off to protect it from damage by people, either accidentally from the oils in our skin or worse from deliberate damage, I can't find a good picture of it, but there is reportedly a picture of an extinct Thylacine, just barely visible on one of the top curved walls (the right I believe - but I saw it over 10 years ago now), a species extinct for centuries if not millenia in Victoria.

Above is a selection of Australian Aboriginal rock art from across our country-continent featureing the Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger which is thought to have died out on the mainland 2,000 years ago years ago, but survived on the island of Tasmania until it was falsely believed to prey on sheep and was exterminated by European settlers. Sadly the last known representative of the species died in Hobart Zoo, Tasmania, Australia in 1936 (pictured below). The top picture is from a cave in New South Wales, the 2nd from Victoria, the third from Western Australia and the 4th showing a human and Thylacine from the Northern Territory. In the case of the Thylacine, there is hope that due to a number of well preserved specimens with salvageable DNA and it's recent extinction by human hands, that the species may be able to be cloned and brought back from extinction!


There are still reports of sightings of these animals in remote areas to this very day, although none of these have been able to be shown to be proven conclusively. Australia is a vast place and still has some very remote wilderness, some species like the Mountain Pygmy Possum and the Adelaide Pygmy Blue Tongue Lizard were assumed to be extinct for decades before small populations were rediscovered. And other species here like the Night Parrot remain in the mysterious ether between extinction and survival: the species was thought to have died out over a century ago, and yet 20 years ago a fresh specimen turned up as roadkill along a remote outback highway.

And that's not all, recently a species of lizard was actually discovered which had only been known from rock art prior to now.It's yellow head thought to only be artistic, not litteral.

It seems we could learn a lot from Australia's extensive Indigenous history, folklore, art and culture. Indigenous colonisation  of Australia is thought to have begun  between 50,000-70,000 years ago making Australia's Indigenous peoples and their culture amongst the most ancient and successful of human civlizations. One that is still with us to today in the modern globalised world. 

It is also around this very same time that the climate was changing rapidly, the continent was drying out, habitats were changing, fires became so frequent that Australian flora adapted to being burnt and the megafauna became extinct. It is still a contentious issue whether or not human beings caused the extinction of the megafauna, whether it was due to climate changes well underway before mankind arrived or perhaps some combination of these and other factors. For more on this debate a comprehensive starting point can be found in
Tim Flannery's  1994 book The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People.
Ancient stories of Indigenous people encountering some of these prehistoric fauna occur in Dreamtime oral tradition folklore passed on over spans of time which must span millennia. The ABC  First Footprints program noted a flood story relating to the end of the last Ice Age, making it amongst the oldest continuous oral traditions on earth.
Giant emus and kangaroos also abound in Aboriginal Dreamtime stories. Long thought to be just fanciful stories, we now know that there were many species of Ice Age megafauna much larger than their present day relatives. Likewise Moari folklore in New Zealand of giant birds called moa and a giant eagle that hunted them was thought to be a mere myth until the bones of nine moa species were discovered, the largest being up to 3.6m tall and they were indeed preyed upon by harpagornis, a giant eagle with a 3m wingspan. Fossil harpagornis talons fit into identical shaped holes found in some moa fossils.  Perhaps if we paid more attention to the wealth of Indigenous wisdom in Indigenous Dreamtime stories, with an open mind, we could learn something about these ancient creatures.The First Foot Prints documentary series also featured this fascinating piece of educational rockart discovered in May 2010, possibly 40,000 years old, at the Nawarla Gabarnmung site in the Northern Territory that compares the size, beak and bill shape accurately between the modern emu (right) and the extinct giant genyornis (left).

Those details can be confirmed by the numerous samples we have of the extinct giant herbivore genyornis from the fossil record. Emus uniquly  have feathers with a double plume and a single shaft, whereas, according to Indigenous lore the genyornis, contrary to what might be assumed by the superficial resemblance to an emu, were singular. This is logical given that we now know the species existed and it's closest living relatives are waterfowl not emus. Rupert Gerritsen has postulated a longer period of survival for this species in temperate south-west Victoria in his 2011book Beyond the Frontier: Explorations in Ethnohistory.

A fascinating letter or opinion piece written into Australian Geographic many years ago, one that I am still trying to retrack down, had a fascinating article about an Aboriginal story about a Wonambi or Wagyl, a rainbow serpent. There are many varying myths about giant rainbow serpents creating features in the landscape across Australia, while others are more naturalistic cautionary tales of those eaten by giant snakes that dwelt in springs and billabongs. Interesting several species of large prehistoric pythons are known from fossils in Australia and have been given the genus Wonambi, elsewhere in the world their closest relitives died out 55 million years ago, but in Australia they clung on until they became extinct some 50,000 years ago - making for the tantalising possibility that Australia's indigenous people did indeed encounter such creatures, and some notion of this surviving in their oral history down to today. That article in an Australian Geographic contained a Dreamtime myth of a woman who was killed by a wonambi after attempting to steal it's eggs. If there is some truth in the tale, then we can learn some things from myths that would otherwise be unknowable, in this case we can see some signs of parental care for the snake's nest. Of course we cannot know this for a fact, but it is an insight we may not have even considered before otherwise. The article finishes with the question, what colour was a wonambi? Well brown and yellow of course, as this too is recorded in the myth.

An artists impression of the Wonambi naracoortensis.

Interestingly, even Thylacoleo the marsupial lion as discussed and this website below in regards to some interesting rock art. We can see the colour, patterning and texture of the animal's fur from several sites across Arnhem land, that begin to build up a consistent picture for us of what the animals looked like, even showing the large bristles on the back - all fascinating details preserved by people that had seen and even hunted such animals thousands of years ago before they became extinct. We even get a few suggestions of it's possible hunting behaviour in these scenes.

For much more on this fascinating topic and additional resources see:

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