Archaeology of JSARN-124 site 3, central-western Arnhem Land: determining the age of the so-called “Genyornis” painting

Bryce Barker, Lara Lamb, Jean-Jacques Delannoy, Bruno David, Robert Gunn, Emilie Chalmin, Geraldine Castets, Ken Aplin, Benjamin Sadier, Ian Moffat, Jerome Mialanes, Margaret Katherine, Jean-Michel Geneste, Stephane Hoerle

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In 2011, Gunn et al. published the discovery in a remote part of the western Arnhem Land plateau of a rock painting that closely resembles the most recent reconstructions of an extinct megafaunal bird, the dromornithid Genyornis newtoni. Characteristics of the painting distinguish it from depictions of other bird species and support its identification as G. newtoni: a deep convex bill, unlike the shallow bill of an emu or cassowary; a globular cranium and relatively thick neck; indication of a crop (emus and cassowaries lack crops); non-pendulous posture of the wing (unlike the pendulous posture of emus); the proportions of the pelvic limb showing long tibiotarsi and stout tarsometatarsi; the short, broad toes that appear to terminate in blunt claws; and a dorsal profile paralleling that of reconstructed dromornithids and unlike an emu or any species of cassowary, in which the vertex of the back is more anterior. The several points of special resemblance between the painting and reconstructions of the extinct bird based on paleontological evidence led Gunn et al. (2011:10) to conclude, ‘on the basis of probability the painting is indeed a representation of Genyornis newtoni’.This finding brings a conundrum. If the painting is indeed a contemporaneous depiction of G. newtoni, it becomes the oldest painting known in the world, for the bird is thought to have become extinct around 50,000 ± 5000 years ago (Miller et al. 1999; Roberts and Brook 2010; Roberts et al. 2001) or even earlier (see Grellet-Tinner et al. 2016). Or that timing for the extinction of Genyornis is wrong; or a relic population survived longer on the Arnhem Land plateau (e.g. Murray and Vickers-Rich 2004), perhaps until the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), which commenced around 25,000 years ago. And, as Gunn et al. (2011) acknowledged, there are still other alternatives. The painting might be of a ‘mythological’ animal: either one rooted in ancient memory of G. newtoni, as has been suggested for the ‘mihirung’ of southern Australian Aboriginal peoples (Vickers-Rich 1987) – although in societies without writing, social memory has not been found anywhere in the world to reliably extend in recognisable form over very long periods of time (cf. Bradley 2002) – or of a creature without a material counterpart that fortuitously resembled the fossil bird. The painting occurs on a vertical rock wall under a shallow overhang. Could the motif really have survived there since Pleistocene times, whether 25,000 or 50,000 years ago? And the painting shows a speared bird, so it could be the first evidence for the hunting of extinct megafauna in Australia.With these enigmas in mind, the Jawoyn Association asked us in 2010 to study the ‘Genyornis’ site, to investigate the age of the art and its archaeological and geomorphological context. Our major aims were to ask whether the painting dates, or theoretically could date, to the time of G. newtoni, or whether it must be more recent, and to uncover contextual ancient cultural information relating to the artworks and to occupation activities at the site in the past. Here, we present the results of these archaeological and geomorphological investigations along with a summary of the chemistry of the rock surface that houses the painting of the large bird thought by Gunn et al. (2011) to be of a Genyornis.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Archaeology of Rock Art in Western Arnhem Land, Australia
EditorsBruno David, Paul S.C. Taçon, Jean-Jacques Delannoy, Jean-Michel Geneste
Place of PublicationActon, ACT
PublisherANU Press
Number of pages74
ISBN (Electronic)9781760461621
ISBN (Print)9781760461614
Publication statusPublished - 2017

Publication series

NameTerra Australis
PublisherANU Press

Bibliographical note

'This book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).'


  • Rock art
  • Archaeology
  • Arnhem Land
  • Geophysics


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