Rare miniature Aboriginal art discovery is ‘biggest’


Experiments determined that the Marra people used beeswax to create their stencils. Source: Flinders Universit

Archaeologists have uncovered the “biggest” collection of miniature Aboriginal stencils, thought to be hundreds of years old, in a remote national park in Northern Australia.

Flinders University researcher Dr Liam Brady found 17 tiny motifs of objects, people and animals, painted onto the face of an isolated rock shelter known as Yilbilinji in Limmen – a National Park in the Gulf of Carpentaria, traditionally owned by the Marra people.

“We came across these tiny stencils which were very distinct and unique, and we realised we’d never seen anything like it before,” Dr Brady said.

“So, we did a bit of research and we found that there were only two other known examples of these miniature stencils found anywhere in the world, which makes the Yilbilinji paintings the biggest known concentration of miniature rock stencils on the planet.”

Aboriginal rock art was first recorded 28,000 years ago, after paintings were discovered in a cave at Arnham Land, in the northeast corner of the Northern Territory.

Dr Brady and his team estimate that the Yilbilinji motifs are between 400 and 500-years-old, but the researchers are unsure exactly how the stencils were made.

“The most puzzling part was that the stencils had rounded edges, and if you were carving them out of bones or wood, they wouldn’t come out like that, they’d have too many sharp edges,” Dr Brady said.

Monash University professor and study co-author Dr John Bradley said he remembered camping with Marra families in the 1980s, and he saw children play with balls of beeswax, moulding them into different animal shapes.

“So, we decided to experiment with this idea, and after lots of moulding, we suspect that these ancient stencils were indeed made using beeswax,” Dr Brady said..

“This is an exciting discovery and it just adds another dimension to the global rock art record.”