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The Pama-Nyungan people adapt quickly to new environments—and enrich them with their art.


Around 10,000 BCE, as the Holocene epoch began and the Last Glacial Maximum receded, the environment and territories of the Australian continent underwent a radical transformation. The rise in temperatures, sea levels, and resources available for consumption at the end of the ice age led to significant and sustained growth in settled populations at the end of the fourth millennium BCE. These larger human groups underwent an important phase of cultural and artistic development, while Pama-Nyungan languages spread widely across the continent.

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Pama-Nyungan languages form a large family native to northeastern Australia that began to extend across the island from the mid-Holocene era. Seemingly organized early on into patrilineal lineages, practicing exogamous marriages, and maintaining structured social institutions, Pama-Nyungan speakers would have assimilated the hunter-gatherer populations they encountered on their trajectory. Settling on more than 80% of the Australian territory, the Pama-Nyungan spread new skills in technologies in addition to their languages. The Pama-Nyungan expansion ran parallel to major changes in the supply patterns of the Aboriginal populations. Their development of intensive agricultural and horticultural techniques, as well as new methods of stone cutting, greatly enhanced their ability to settle and thrive in diverse environments. Their greater numbers meant that they were able to engage in labor-intensive, specialized activities such as grain grinding and the processing of poisonous plant species. The sites associated with Pama-Nyungan settlement in Australia witnessed unprecedented growth in artistic and cultural practices. The middle of the Holocene era corresponds to a pivotal moment in the diversification of rock painting motifs, which reflected the groups’ sedentarization and marked their appropriation of territories. These sites also show traces of the first large-scale ceremonial gatherings bringing together individuals from the same region.

Did you know?

Rock paintings and engravings are a means of expression used by Aboriginal peoples for tens of thousands of years. In fact, Australia has some of the oldest sites in the world, dating back almost 47,000 years.