Savanna Explorer > Arnhem Land > People and Culture

A rich culture

Traditional Owners survey the Sandstone country in the upper Cadell River area, Arnhem Land Plateau
Traditional Owners survey the Sandstone country in the upper Cadell River area, Arnhem Land Plateau

The Arnhem Land plateau is an enormous sandstone tableland, roughly the size of Switzerland, that lies in Australia’s tropical north. The western areas of this plateau are part of the World Heritage Kakadu National Park, and the larger eastern part lies in the west of Arnhem Land. This is country that has been home to Indigenous people for tens of thousands of years and the rock paintings found throughout the plateau are thought to represent the longest continuous record of human culture anywhere in the world.

There is evidence that people moved into this country around 40–50,000 years ago when the world was a cooler, drier place, sea levels were lower and the Arnhem Plateau was some 250 km south of the coast. The lower seas would have allowed people to come into this country from land bridges linked to northern parts and it is thought that these pioneers from the north started leaving signs of their lives, such as hand prints, on the walls of stone shelters in these early times.

Later, perhaps more than 10,000 years ago, more naturalistic paintings of thylacines, Tasmanian devils, extinct megafauna and people appear on the rock walls.1,2

At the end of the last Ice Age, around 8000 years ago, the sea level rose rapidly as the world’s great continental ice shelves collapsed and melted. The coast was now only a few tens of kilometers from the northern edge of the plateau and the north-flowing rivers became surrounded by salt marshes and then mangroves as an estuarine landscape formed on the lowlands.

At this time estuarine fish like catfish, barramundi and mullet appear on the rock walls of the plateau.

Gradually the more intense wet seasons associated with the raised sea-levels in the region caused the mangroves to retreat and by 1500-1000 years ago, the freshwater wetlands we know today with billabongs and paperbark swamps became established.

These wetlands offered a cornucopia of food and materials for people: freshwater fish and birds, and plenty of plants provided bush tucker and weaving material. At this time paintings of water lilies and magpie geese appear in the shelters along with depictions of more advanced hunting tools like complex spear-throwers 1.

Rock painting of thylacine, or marsupial wolf, which has been exinct on the Australian mainland for perhaps 2000 years
Rock painting of a thylacine, or marsuplial wolf, which has been extinct on the Australian mainland for perhaps 2000 years.

Rock painting in Arnhem land of barramundi fish
Rock painting of Barramundi fish

Arnhem Land Rock Art

The Arnhem Land rock art galleries have been described as “one of the world’s supreme art galleries”3 but they are also more than that as the paintings were bound up with and reflected the economic, cultural and spiritual life of the artists and communities that created them. These multi-layered galleries are like a more or less continuous record of the way these people interacted with physical and spiritual world that extends back thousands of years. The Arnhem Land Plateau arguably harbours the longest record of human endeavour anywhere on earth.

Burning and life in the plateau

It is thought that it was the formation of these rich wetlands to the north of the Arnhem Land Plateau around 1000 years ago that then drew people from lands south of the plateau, and led to a major increase in the population on the plateau. During the wet season at this time the plateau would have had people scattered across its length and breadth using the waterholes and creeks, and then in the dry season people would have come down to the wetter northern lowlands leaving many parts of the plateau sparsely populated. These seasonal migrations would have seen many groups of people moving through the landscape and evidence indicates that such travels would have also involved trading with products from the stone country like quartz spear heads being traded for wetlands produce.4

The warmer, more humid climate after the Ice Ages brought more intense wet seasons to the plateau,  producing the climate cycle we know today with plenty of rain interrupted by a dry season drought. This climate in turn encourages growth of grasses in the wet season which then dry out to produce fuel for fires in the dry.

Aboriginal people moving through these fire-prone lands must have soon learned to use fire to help them in various ways: clearing living spaces; clearing tracks; reducing fuel for destructive fires later in the year, or in future years; putting in patchy fires to protect resources – like fruit trees that attract emus, or to produce green pick to attract kangaroos; creating fire breaks around special places; driving kangaroos during a hunt; using smoke to communicate. These are just some of the ways Aboriginal people today can use fire. A key characteristic of this burning was that a mosaic of patchily burnt country was created — some blackened and recently burnt, some burnt a few months ago and showing re-growth.

This patchy landscape made it hard for a fire that started late in the dry season, when the weather was hot and windy, to spread very far as it would soon come across a patch of country with little fuel that acted as a fire break. This limit on wildfires, combined with the rocky topography allowed fire-sensitive plants and animals to survive on the plateau.1,4,5

It was this long-term management by Aboriginal people of the resources they valued by using fire and the consequent limiting of late dry season wildfires that contributed to the extraordinary natural values of the Arnhem Land plateau.

Exodus and age of wildfire 

Europeans started moving into the Top End of the Northern territory in the 19th century, initially as explorers like Ludwig Leichhardt who traversed the plateau in the 1840s, and later as cattlemen looking for new pastures. By the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries Europeans had established cattle stations, mining camps and buffalo hunting operations in the lowlands surrounding the Arnhem Land Plateau. (The water buffalo, Bubalus bubalis, is not native to Australia but was introduced to northern Australia in the early nineteenth century to supply meat to the early settlements and by the late nineteenth century is could be found in significant numbers on the floodplains northwest of the Arnhem Plateau.)

The conflict between Europeans and Aboriginals over land and the violence that followed led to deaths of Aboriginal people as did the diseases the Europeans carried. It appears that one of the most pervasive factors affecting Aboriginal people on the plateau after European settlement was the attraction offered by the cattle stations, mining and buffalo camps with their tobacco, flour and tea. During the early twentieth century many groups of Aboriginal people moved away from the plateau to take advantage of these new resources.7

By the mid to late twentieth century the Arnhem Plateau was largely deserted — with few people and almost no fire management. The patchy mosaic of differently burnt vegetation faded away and wildfires entering the plateau had large relatively uniform expanses of grassy fuel to burn. The age of wildfires had started.


1. Chaloupka, G. (1993). Journey in Time. Reed, Sydney.

2. Chippindale, C., Smith, B., and Taçon, P.S.C. (2000). Visions of Dynamic Power: Archaic Rock-paintings, Altered States of Consciousness and ‘Clever Men’ in Western Arnhem Lane (NT), Australia. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 10, pp 63-101

3. Professor Ken Mulvaney in Chaloupka (1993)

4. Garde, M. (2008). How the old people looked after the stone country: an ethnographic history of life on the Arnhem Land plateau. In Managing fire regimes in north Australian savannas – ecology, culture, economy (eds J Russell-Smith, PJ Whitehead, P Cooke). CSIRO Publications, Melbourne. (in preparation)

5. Russell-Smith, J., Lucas, D., Gapindi, M., Gunbunuka, B., Kapirigi, N., Namingam,G.,  Lucas, K., Giuliani, P., Chaloupka, G. (1997a) Aboriginal resource utilization and fire management practice in western Arnhem Land, monsoonal northern Australia: notes for prehistory, lessons for the future. Human Ecology, 25, 159–195.

6. Dyer, R., Russell-Smith, J., Grice, T., McGuffog, T., Cooke, P., & Yibarbuk, D. 2002, ‘Using fire to manage savanna’,in Savanna burning: Understanding and using fire in northern Australia, eds R. Dyer, P. Jacklyn, I. Partridge, J. Russell-Smith & R.J. Williams, Tropical Savannas Management Cooperative Research Centre, Darwin, pp. 50–80.

7. Levitus R. (1995). Social history since colonisation. Pp 64-93 in Kakadu: natural and cultural heritage and management. A Press, D Lea, A Webb and A Graham. (eds.). Australian Nature Conservation Agency and North Australian Research Unit, Australian National University: Darwin.