The Djulirri Rock Shelter in northern Australia is well known to fans of rock art. Archaeologists probing remote nooks and crannies of the shelter, however, have just discovered a prehistoric individual's secret obsession with a single bird, which the artist stenciled over and over again.
A Rare Find
The over 9,000-year-old bird stencils, featured in the latest issue of the journal Antiquity, are the first ancient stencils of whole birds ever documented, according to the researchers. "Small birds were usually not stenciled, so our find is unique," lead author Paul Tacon told Discovery News. "In recent times and for some people today, small birds are sometimes said to be spirits of ancestors and were not harmed. Perhaps this is why they were usually not stenciled."
A How-To Guide
"(To make a stencil) red ochre was mixed with water and put into the mouth," Tacon, a professor of archaeology and anthropology at Griffith University, explained. "The bird was held in place while the pigment was blown over and around it," he added. "The bird was then removed, leaving the negative image behind." In this photo, we can see several bird stencils on the ceiling of the shelter.
Rock Art Collection
Tacon and his team found five stencils of the bird -- believed to be a honeyeater -- on a remote panel within the Djulirri Rock Shelter, located in the Wellington Range of Australia's Northern Territory. Djulirri is regarded as being one of the top 10 rock art sites in the world. It currently exists on the clan estate of Ronald Lamilami (pictured here), one of Tacon's colleagues who was also a co-author of the paper.
More Than Birds
The panel in the rock shelter with the bird images is difficult to access and was "out of view from other parts of the rock shelter complex, unlike most of the other rock art at Djulirri," according to the researchers. In addition to the bird images, this panel also contains red, purple and yellow stencils of hands, fish and a stick figure.
It's a mystery why the bird was stenciled so many times in one place. "It may have been a rare treat for dinner, someone's totem species, a personal marker, a bird raised as a pet, the result of a ritual, the product of an idle moment, a record of some significant event or an artistic innovation that never caught on," according to the researchers.
A Popular Pastime
"Australia will never cease to amaze us with the variety of its rock art," Jean Clottes told Discovery News. Clottes is one of the world's leading experts on cave and rock art and has co-authored over 300 scientific papers on related subjects. Clottes said stenciling was a popular form of art in early Australia, with hands, boomerangs and sticks usually serving as subjects.
Tacon and his team also note that stencils of emu feet and dingo paws have been found, along with stencils of various human body parts. The entire upper torso of one adult was stenciled at a Cape York site in northern Queensland. "In Cueva de las Manos (Argentina), birds' feet are stenciled, but this is the first time that whole bird stenciled images have been discovered," Clottes said. "As to knowing the precise meaning of those bird stencils, I agree with the authors' pessimism," he added. "They are, however, a testimony to the boundless ingenuity of humans and the extreme diversity of cultural manifestations."