A new project to safeguard the future of Aboriginal rock art and contemporary sites along the Canning Stock Route is bringing together Indigenous Australians, researchers and government agencies.
One of the survey images from the Canning Stock Route captured by the research team.
The Canning Stock Route in Western Australia might well be the longest art space on the planet. Its arid plains and gullies are a world away from the genteel vaults of the Louvre. Yet the 1700km track that meanders from Halls Creek to Wiluna is dotted with thousands of Aboriginal rock paintings and engravings, possibly dating back tens of thousands of years. This is a rich cultural and spiritual record created in increments by generations of Western Desert peoples. Next to it, the output of Europe’s grand masters can seem as freshly daubed as graffiti at a railway station.
Most people would agree that you can’t run art galleries like railway stations or public thoroughfares. It would be risible to suggest that Louvre should be open at all hours, its contents left unguarded, uncatalogued and without any cohesive plan of management. Great cultural artefacts should be protected, right? This idea is underscored each time a Vermeer or Munch or Picasso is stolen, and a flurry of media stories and accusations ensues. What few Australians appreciate is that a collection of works of immeasurable cultural value are at risk of theft, damage and neglect.
Over the last decade increasing numbers of adventure tourism operators and travellers have been steering their four-wheel drives to the nation’s northwest, tracking along the dusty expanse of the Canning Stock Route. One expert estimates that there are now thousands of visitors driving through the area each year. As interest grows, operators have been pushing further and further out into the wilderness to get an edge over their competitors. An unintended consequence of this traffic is that many Indigenous sites of significance have been degraded. In the worst cases, whole sections of painting and engraving have been chiselled out of the rock and stolen. This has occurred in part because no single body is responsible for the region. Oversight has been shared on an ad hoc basis by Indigenous land councils and government departments at the state and federal levels. No-one has a comprehensive record of all the important cultural sites on or near the route. If this situation continued, Australia would be placing a substantial portion of its pre-European history in jeopardy.
In this context of uncertainty about the future of the Canning Stock Route, there is a renewed effort to safeguard it for all people – Indigenous or otherwise. ANU researchers are helping to lay the groundwork for the first comprehensive plan of management for the entire route. In 2007, a trio of researchers from the University led a successful bid to the Australian Research Council. They won more than $927,000 over four years to chronicle, interpret and manage rock art and dreaming sites. These funds will be more than matched by ANU and the group’s research partners, including representatives of Aboriginal land councils and various government departments. By 2010 they plan to develop a series of modules that can be used to inform detailed guides and signs for visitors, while also protecting sites that have special significance for Indigenous peoples.
Archaeologist Peter Veth, Deputy-Director of the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, is one of the lead ANU researchers working on the project. He’s the former Research Director at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, and a co-editor of the book Desert Peoples, which explored how early hunter-gatherer societies adapted as the landscapes in which they lived dried out across the globe. Veth has been visiting the Canning Stock Route for almost three decades, and says the momentum from the new project came from Western Desert traditional owners and pressing management issues.
“You can purchase a map [of the Canning Stock Route] that says exactly what spectacular paintings and engravings you must visit, and the GPS coordinates to get there,” Veth says. “There are numerous websites now with similar information. There’s no signage on the stock route, there is no management regime, there’s no recognition that it’s all Native Title-determined now. Quite a few of the sites being promoted to tourists are restricted. Indigenous people prefer not to see restricted images in the public domain.
“Lots of the camp sites along the stock routes have been raked and raked over; people have cleaned them up. Without knowing it, some people have raked up one thousand grindstones, or destroyed a site that might be up to 10,000 years old. And there has been removal of some of the most ancient engravings via angle grinding.
“[Indigenous] people are really happy for tourists coming to experience the stock route,” Veth says. “But they’re not happy for the people going to sites and places that are restricted for cultural reasons. They’re not happy for resources to be used unsustainably, and they’re extremely unhappy when they’re confronted by some of the tourists and told that they have no right to be there. The desert has been ‘recolonised’ by some commercial operators and tourists.”
Confrontations between tourism interests and Indigenous people along the Canning Stock Route hark back to the origins of the track, which is in its own way a story of conflict.
The route is named after Alfred Canning, a WA government surveyor. In 1906 he was tasked with finding a path for Kimberley graziers to drive their cattle south to the water and grasslands around Wiluna. To locate the wells and watering holes that would make the lengthy desert trek possible, Canning and his colleagues forcibly coopted Aborigines. Groups of Martu men were captured by the Europeans, chained at the neck, and then force fed salt until they could stand their thirst no longer. They then unwillingly led the surveying party to the next source of water. This cruel joining of the dots made for slow progress.
In the two years it took to plot the way from Hall’s Creek to Wiluna there were a series of confrontations between the original owners and the newcomers. When the first graziers attempted to drive their cattle down the route in 1911 they were killed. Many of these incidents led to reprisals and misunderstandings on both sides.
The recollections of one woman elder of that time have been recorded by Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa – The Martu History and Archive Project on behalf of the Western Desert Lands Aboriginal Corporation. This group is one of the industry partners in the ARC research project. The oral history is a reminder of the time around first contact between Indigenous people and Europeans.
Nyangapa: “We would go and travel about Lipuru (Well 37) and stay there. We stayed there in the darkness. We saw them [Europeans]. We heard the tinkling of the bells as the horses came from the west, coming ahead for water ... right towards the water. No way would we stay there – we decided to return to the east … so we got up and ran away very frightened. We ran and ran back to Pirrkili and after we drank we were staying there quietly. We went and still shaking from fear stayed there. They used to be spearing out there. They used to kill people. Our mothers used put us away when we were frightened. They would take a peep at us and … off they’d run. They would run and run, this way and that. We were very frightened and would run away from those white people.”
Why were the original inhabitants so disturbed by the arrival of the European descendants? It doesn’t require much empathy or imagination to realise that Western Desert peoples probably felt threatened, as their relationship to the land they’d nurtured for millennia came under threat. And some of the proof of this lengthy relationship is in the rock art.
Researcher Dr Jo McDonald from ANU says that the team have already dated some of the art back to 1,200 years, but they believe that other sites could be as old as 25,000 years, dating to the initial settlement of the region.
“We’re looking to tie down the material, but it’s difficult to conclusively date the art on rock,” McDonald says. For the last 25 years, she has worked as an independent archaeological consultant, with a special interest in Aboriginal rock art. Between 1985 and 1990 she was engaged by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service to devise a management strategy for the extensive shelter and engraved art of the Sydney basin, recording hundreds of sites in the process. She also has expertise writing plans of management, which will come in useful in the latter stages of the current project.
“The Canning Stock Route’s significance to the Aboriginal people comes from its place in their cultural and social landscape,” she says. “For us [non-Indigenous researchers] it’s significant because its rock art was undescribed before the last five or six years. The rock art played a role in the whole Indigenous social sphere, but we can’t – as archaeologists – always understand how. We’re trying to understand how people used art to communicate ideas about themselves, but also record things important to them and the different things they were doing.”
McDonald says that there is such a wealth of rock art sites along the route that it is sometimes difficult to evaluate the importance of particular motifs – sorting out those that were casual ‘sketches’, for example, from those that were central to the mythological beliefs and the practices of their creators. Some of the markings denote social affiliation and secular activities, while others relate myths and legends.
“We are only just beginning to collect the relevant cultural information, so it’s impossible to understand at this stage what’s important. Unless someone says to you ‘that figure over there, that’s the one about this legend’, you’re left without the whole picture. Often there will be hundreds of motifs, but of these only some will relate to a particular story. There is this incredible archaeological ‘noise’, if you like, resulting from the depiction of many different events and mythologies over time, so we need to work with the Western Desert peoples to tell us what is significant in their time frame. This will allow us to understand how a near-contemporary art system operated and provide insight into art systems that operated in deeper time.”
Anthropologist Professor Howard Morphy from ANU agrees that the task of chronicling and interpreting the art along the stock route will be challenging and that the input of the area’s traditional owners will be invaluable.
“The richness of Aboriginal art systems is enormous,” Morphy says. “Rock art exists as an aesthetic product in its own right, but it is also a record of part of a whole. You have to understand Aboriginal art as you would understand the richness of opera. It is produced through song, through dance, though body paintings, through head dresses etc., and with designs that would crosscut media. Designs on bodies, for example, would also be inscribed on rock surfaces. But it’s the rock art that survives. As a result you have a partial record, and know that it connects to the overall richness. It is the most underused resource in exploring Indigenous prehistory, yet potentially one of the richest.”
Morphy is one of the world’s most respected experts on Australian Indigenous art, focusing much of his time on the relationships between art styles and their spatial distributions. He’s interested in how the movements of peoples across landscapes intersect with current cultural practices, but also how art fits into the larger trajectory of Aboriginal history. In order to come to grips with the immensity of the stock route, he says that multiple perspectives will be required.
“What’s so exciting about this project is that it’s interdisciplinary. The only way you can gain a rich understanding of the past is to actually have a whole team of people working together with the Indigenous communities who today are connected to that particular land. The fact that you’re working in a team of people who have expertise in different kinds of knowledge – local knowledge, theoretical knowledge in archaeology and anthropology – will enable us to produce the fundamental research that can produce better plans of management. I believe this approach can bring great returns in the longer term for the survival of the Canning Stock Route, but also produce the resources that can be used by the Indigenous people in the development of cultural, educational and historical tourism.”
Incorporating the perspectives of traditional owners in the project is also an important aspect for Dr Peter Kendrick from the WA Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC). Head of nature conservation in the Pilbara region for the DEC, Kendrick is also a representative for the department as an industry partner in the ARC project. He says he’s been privileged to be one of the few non-Indigenous people to regularly visit remote parts of the Canning Stock Route during summer, when the temperature soars to hellish extremes.
“It can seem very lonely – because the track blows away, leaving wind-ripples instead of tyre tracks.” Kendrick explains. “It’s hideously hot. You spend the hot part of the days minimising your heat loss, and then work with the animals in the mornings and evenings. But if you’re travelling with Martu people it’s social, noisy even, and can seem very beautiful. There’s lots of space. If you climb a hill and look back you realise how tiny you are, and begin to realise just how vast are the land claims are out there, and the country. You can drive for days and days and not go very far at all.”
But Kendrick says what can seem to be a vast emptiness to non-Indigenous people is still a varied and treasured place for its traditional owners. “Culturally it’s densely populated with landmarks of all kinds – material culture, landforms, art works. If you go with the people who know the country, there’s nothing that doesn’t have a name. Even the sand dunes.”
Kendrick’s department has been working with traditional owners on fauna and flora management projects along and around the stock route, and says that this fits into the idea of a holistic approach to land found in Indigenous culture. He says ‘back-to-country’ visits will form a crucial part of the ARC project, allowing young Aboriginal people to reconnect with their traditional practices and regions.
Another industry partner representative, Dr Brian Prince, describes the ARC project as a “two-way opportunity” where the researchers learn from the traditional owners and vice versa. The head of Indigenous Heritage Management for the Federal Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, Prince says that this is the “kind of project we’d like to see more of.”
“One of the really fantastic things about this is that it brings together different partners who have interests in the stock route – traditional partners, researchers, state and federal government agencies,” he says. “These sort of partnerships are a really good way of getting good outcomes because you’ve got the key players involved and achieving outcomes better than you could acting individually. This is particularly the case for the interaction between the traditional owners and the heritage researchers, who can develop good ways of building the capacity of Indigenous people to bring together Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge systems.”
Prince also believes that a proper plan of management will be a great way for more non-Indigenous Australians to become familiar with the nation’s “big sky country”.
“It really is like that – the great bowl of the sky over you, and these incredible stars at night. All you hear after dark is the movement of little animals and the wind through the Spinifex. The contrast of the red rock and the blue sky – it’s just amazing stuff.”
Professor Peter Veth couldn’t agree more. After three decades of regular field work in and around the Canning Stock Route, the archaeologist says it feels like home. But he will never be complacent about going back, using the Durba Springs as an example of a site made special because of its millennia of use by Indigenous Australians.
“You drive possibly for several days through sand dunes, open Spinifex country, rocky jagged flats and minor rises,” Veth says. “All of a sudden you come over a sand dune and there’s a beautiful sprawling sandstone. It has native grass lawns, huge gum trees around the edge, up to 20 metres high, fringed by permanent spring-fed pools. As you throw out your swag or make a cup of tea or just sit there, you’re surrounded by one of the most spectacular refuges that you could hope to find.”
It’s safe to say that all of the partners in the Canning Stock Route hope that it’s a refuge that will endure because of their efforts.