Discontinuities in arid zone rock art: Graphic indicators for changing social complexity across space and through time


Jo McDonald


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Publication Date

June 2017


For several decades it been argued that episodic behavioral dynamism provides a better explanation for Australian arid zone social organization than earlier models founded on perceptions of long term, widespread cultural conservatism. This new understanding continues to develop with the consideration of rock art as a behavioral proxy. The development of a rock art style sequence in the Australian Western Desert has modelled for changing occupation indices and art production modes through time based on environmental changes and their likely effects on mobility patterns and territoriality (McDonald and Veth, 2013a). This model which sees rock art accompanying the first peopling of Australia’s deserts and stands in stark contrast to that of Smith (2013) which sees rock art as a mid-Holocene addition to the adaptive social repertoires of arid-zone peoples. We have argued that rock art provides evidence for an early mapping onto arid landscapes and that there is a long, albeit syncopated, arid zone style chronology. Early pigment rock art dates from Sulawesi (Aubert el al., 2014) support the view that symbolic behaviour was part of the social repertoire of human groups colonizing Australia and its interior. This paper tests the arid-zone style sequence by quantifying the synchronic and diachronic stylistic discontinuities observable at Kaalpi and Katjarra – two style provinces in the Australian Western Desert. While stylistic variability in the recent past demonstrates the nature of synchronic discontinuity in arid zone symbolic behaviour, punctuated changes in style graphics and changes in the way that this art has been placed through time demonstrate deep-time stylistic discontinuities, providing support for the phased art sequence and evidence for earlier configurations of arid-zone social networks.


Arid Zone, Rock Art, Stylistic, Hunter-Gatherer, Discontinuity

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Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, Vol. 46 (2017-06-01).