Rock art in arid landscapes: Pilbara and Western Desert petroglyphs

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This paper develops a testable model for understanding rock art within archaeological phases of the arid northwest Pilbara and Western Desert bioregions. It also presents the first multivariate analysis of foundational recording work undertaken almost 50 years ago, and deploys more recently recorded assemblages from the Burrup Peninsula (Murujuga) and the Western Desert. It establishes a framework for testable hypotheses about how art production in these adjacent bioregions through deep-time reflects information systems, emergent territoriality, group identity and signalling behaviour against a backdrop of climatic oscillations, including the LGM (23-18 ka), Antarctic Cold Reversal (14.5-12.5 ka) and intensification of ENSO (3.8-2 ka). The Pilbara piedmont has clearly defined gorges with major water sources; the Western Desert has uncoordinated drainage punctuated by well-watered but subdued ranges. We argue that rock art has been used to negotiate social identity in both contexts since each was first colonised. The role that art may have played in the formation of social networks in these different landscapes through time is the key focus of this paper. We hypothesise that the episodic use of art as signalling behaviour in the Australian arid zone can be linked to behavioural correlates and major archaeological phases with discrete signatures that can be tested from myriad sites.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)66-81
JournalAustralian Archaeology
Publication statusPublished - 2013


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