Ancient bird stencils, more than 9000 years old, have been discovered in a remote part of Arnhem Land by a team of archaeologists and Aboriginal traditional owners.

Five stencils of the complete body of a bird were found in July 2009 on the wall and ceiling of a small rock shelter that is part of an extraordinary rock art complex known to the local Maung-speaking people as Djulirri.

The Djulirri site has more than 3100 paintings, prints, stencils and beeswax figures, making it the largest rock art site with paintings in Australia.

Griffith University rock art expert Professor Paul Tacon, who led the expedition, said no other stencils of whole birds had been discovered anywhere in the world.

“The bird stencils are located in one of the more difficult to access panels of the northern wing and are surrounded by hand stencils and two figures.”

Precise dating of the Djulirri birds is in progress but the team believe them to be at least 9000 years or older. Arnhem Land stencils of animals are the oldest surviving animal-related stencils from anywhere in the world.

Each bird stencil is exactly the same shape and size, 21cm long by 8cms wide, suggesting that the same creature was stencilled five times.

The stencils are about two metres above the ground on the ceiling and near the top of the wall.

“The size and shape of the bird suggests it is probably a honeyeater, which are common in Arnhem Land and across Australia,” Professor Tacon said.

“The bird was held in place in such a way that whatever held them was not stencilled. This suggests the artist had the skills and physical abilities of an adult.”

He said they would never know why the bird was stencilled so many times in one place.

“It may have been a rare treat for dinner, someone‚Äôs totem species, a personal marker, a bird raised as a pet, a record of some significant event or an artistic innovation that never caught on.

“However, it reminds us of the long history of human interaction with and depiction of creatures both great and small. It also speaks to us about climate change and the threat to small, vulnerable species so often forgotten when human concerns dominate debate about environment and heritage.”


The discovery was published on May 27 by leading world archaeology journal Antiquity.