More than just history, rock art is key to modern Indigenous well-being

Rock drawings from Wollemi National Park, New South Wales.

Fresh research from Griffith University has reinforced the fundamental connection between the continued preservation of ancient Indigenous rock-art sites in Australia and the well-being of the country’s contemporary First Peoples.

Professor Paul S.C. Taçon

According to new papers written and co-written by Professor Paul S.C. Taçon, although the impact of heritage sites on community well-being has been increasingly examined across a range of scholarship over the past decade, relatively little research has focused on why such places remain so vital today.

In Connecting to the ancestors: why rock art is important for Indigenous Australians and their well-being, published in Rock Art Research, Professor Taçon engaged with both Indigenous people and non-Indigenous rock art researchers to explore what rock art means to different demographics.

Although Professor Taçon found a degree of overlap among some of the respondents’ rationale — notably, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous respondents highlighted rock art’s ability to help us understand the past, connections to land, Indigenous identity and more — a fundamental difference remains clear: for non-Indigenous people, rock art sites reflect the past; for Indigenous Australians, they are as much a living piece of the present as they are slices of history.

“Rock art sites provide an important window into the past for researchers but also form an essential part of contemporary, living Indigenous culture,” Professor Taçon said.

Professor Sarah Baker

“The messages contained in these sites are biblical, in the truest sense of the word; they are crucial repositories of knowledge, lore and culture, and their conservation and management is vital to ensure the well-being not only of the physical artworks but also the people to whom they mean so much.”

However, the conservation and management of ancient rock art sites is not a simple task, and Professor Taçon, along with co-author Professor Sarah Baker, examines some of the associated complexities in New and Emerging Challenges to Heritage and Well-being: A Critical Review, published in May’s edition of Heritage.

Among other issues, Professors Taçon and Baker — both members of the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research — highlight the inevitable impact of climate change on natural and cultural heritage sites, and the devastating consequences that would be wrought on human well-being should such archaeological treasures be lost.

“Sustainability of heritage sites, in particular, is an issue of some concern, as the rise in tourism to places of historic and/or cultural significance has created a unique set of challenges when it comes to the preservation of these key locations,” Professor Taçon said.

“It is imperative that we treat all heritage as living heritage, lest we put at risk the future psychological and even physical health of both individuals and societies at large.”