As with European art, different Aboriginal art styles have developed over time. Researchers have identified about 11 main artistic styles of rock art in Kakadu. At many sites paintings are layered on top of each other, often in a number of different styles. 'Art on art' sites are use to determine which styles came first. It is important to remember that style itself is not enough to determine the age of a painting, since styles were not necessarily exclusive to one period; some styles developed a long time ago are still used today.
- 50 000 years ago - Object prints
- 20 000 years ago - Large naturalistic figures, Dynamic figures and Post-dynamic figures
- 15 000 years ago - Simple figures with boomerangs
Mountford figures (northern running figures) and Yam figures
- 8 000 years ago - Early estuarine paintings
- 4 000 years ago - Bees-wax art and X-ray descriptive
- 1 500 years ago - X-ray decorative
- 300 years ago - Contact art
The 11 main art styles are spread across three environmental periods. The listing on the right shows a suggested chronology of these art styles, based on work of George Chaloupka.
Dating through subjects and art styles
By studying the subjects and art styles and then comparing them with climatic, geological and archaeological evidence, researchers have been able to estimate the age of a number of paintings. Paintings of animals now extinct on the Australian mainland can be assumed to have been done before, or shortly after, these animals disappeared: the long-beaked echidna is thought to have become extinct 15 000 years ago; the thylacine and Tasmanian devil became extinct more recently, probably about 2000 to 3000 years ago. Paintings of other animals are linked to specific environmental conditions: estuarine conditions are thought to have begun about 6000 years ago, so paintings of estuarine fish are probably less than 6000 years old; the freshwater floodplains developed more recently, so paintings of freshwater birds such as magpie geese are probably less than 1500 years old.
During the pre-estuarine period, from about 50 000 to 8000 years ago, the sea level was much lower and the climate was much drier. Art from this time is represented by a number of styles: object prints; large naturalistic animals and humans; dynamic figures; post-dynamic figures; simple figures with boomerangs; Mountford figures (northern running figures); and yam figures.
Object prints are made as positive imprints. A hand or object can be placed in wet paint and pressed directly onto the rock or paint-covered items such as grass and string can be thrown against a rock. Imprints of thrown objects are generally found on ceilings or overhangs or on out-of-reach walls. These object prints are probably the earliest style of rock art found in Kakadu.
Large naturalistic animals and humans are the earliest drawn images found in the region. The animals are usually drawn in outline and filled in with contour lines, stipples, patches, and occasionally an ochre wash. They are often larger than life. Wallabies and kangaroos are the most common images, but other animals such as freshwater crocodiles and extinct mainland species such as the long-beaked echidna, thylacine and Tasmanian devil are also painted in this style. An example of a thylacine can be seen at Ubirr.
The dynamic figures are small, exquisitely drawn humans, animals and part-humans. The human figures are drawn in action, with their legs widespread and their bodies thrust forward. Generally the male figures wear an elaborate head-dress and a belt from which one or two skirts are suspended. Necklaces, pendants and armlets are also worn. Weapons such as barbed spears, boomerangs, clubs, stone axes and sticks are also shown. Figures with the head of an animal and the body of a human are usually depicted with the humans and are involved in a variety of hunting activities. The animals portrayed are usually kangaroos or wallabies, although some birds and freshwater fish are also painted in this style.
The post-dynamic figures are similar to the dynamic figures but are usually drawn in silhouette, appear static, and lack the animation of the dynamic figures. They are somewhat stylised.
The simple figures with boomerangs are highly stylised figures drawn in one thick line. They appear similar to stick figures and commonly wear head-dresses and skirts and carry boomerangs and hooked sticks.
Mountford figures (northern running figures) are found in the north of the park and often appear to be running at full speed. The paintings generally portray human figures with sensuously curved, elongated S-shaped bodies.
The yam figures consist of yam images transposed onto human and animal forms. Usually, the head is depicted as a yam and the body is that of a human or animal. The yams painted are mainly identified as the water yam, although other species such as the long yam are also painted. The Rainbow Serpent first appears in paintings of this style.
The estuarine period, from about 8000 to 1500 years ago, began with the flooding of river valleys and the formation of mangrove swamps. Animals such as barramundi, mullet and estuarine crocodiles migrated into the newly formed estuaries and appear for the first time in rock art. This period is represented by three art styles: early estuarine paintings; bees-wax art; and the X-ray descriptive style.
The early estuarine paintings feature fish such as barramundi, mullet and catfish, estuarine crocodiles, and human figures with a variety of spear throwers. The paintings are naturalistic in style.
Bees-wax art features simple designs and human figures applied in bees-wax obtained from native bees.
The X-ray descriptive style depicts the external shape and internal structures of humans, animals and objects.
During the freshwater period, less than 1500 years ago, freshwater billabongs and paperbark swamps replaced saltwater systems. The freshwater wetlands brought new food resources to the area and the paintings reflect these changes, showing waterlilies and magpie geese, humans carrying goose spears, goose-wing fans, complex spear throwers and didgeridoos. There are two art styles: the X-ray decorative style and contact art.
The X-ray decorative style developed from the X-ray descriptive style. Some artists lost interest in the anatomical detail of internal organs and subdivided the body for purely decorative purposes. Both the descriptive and decorative forms of X-ray art continue to be used today in contemporary bark and paper paintings. The Lightning Man begins to occur in paintings during this phase.
Contact art records the arrival and activities of people from Macassan, Chinese and European cultures. The two-masted boat depicted at the Nanguluwur Gallery and the rifles at Nourlangie and Ubirr are good examples of contact art.