Further consideration of a marsupial lion (Thylacoleo carnifex) from a rock painting in The Kimberley, Western Australia

Stan Woodhouse

Introduction

A rock painting from the north-western coast of the Kimberley in Australia, previously described in the pages of Antiquity's Project Gallery (Akerman & Willing 2009), was presented in part only, as it was difficult to photograph the scene in poor light and with a 10m-tide falling rapidly in crocodile-infested waters. Consequently the 2009 photograph showed a male animal and only the tail of another animal in front. Independently of the authors of the 2009 paper, I have returned to the site and undertaken a more intensive photographic review which has made it possible to add a number of features to the previous description and offer some new interpretations.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Example of terrain but actual site not shown.
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Figure 2
Figure 2. Site of the painting.
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Description

The site is a rockshelter, part of a series of shallow caves near the western shore of the Admiralty Gulf, along the lower edges of a sandstone outcrop alongside a large tidal river. Figure 1 gives an idea of the type of location, but, for security purposes, it does not show the actual site. The caves in the area are covered in rock paintings of various ages and have continued to be used until relatively recent times.

The site of the marsupial lion painting, located in a shallow overhang (Figure 2), also contains other paintings, briefly described by Akerman and Willing (2009). The complete marsupial lion painting on which I shall concentrate is 3.94m long and 1.3m wide (Figure 3). For a drawing rendering the scene, with two animals, see Figure 4.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Rock face showing the entire painting of the two animals.
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Figure 4
Figure 4. Schematic drawing of the painting in Figure 3.
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There are two animals, as was previously thought. The animal in front (right-hand side of the photograph), is the one shown in greater detail here, since only the tail was recorded previously. Both animals have their tails lifted upwards and both animals have tail tufts, although the tuft on the right-hand animal is more easily visible. Both animals have stripes along the whole of the body and down to the centre of the body. The depth of the stripes is limited by a single longitudinal line.

As previously stated, the genitalia of the left-hand animal are distinctly visible and leave no doubt that it is male. This animal's head has an ear which is badly eroded but careful viewing shows an outline of a wide upright ear resembling a modern lion. The head is large compared to the rest of the body and has a large eye. A detailed view on Figure 5 shows the line of the muzzle to be separate from the horizontal diamond-shaped projection at its front. There is no suggestion of a mane or whiskers on the painting.

The front of the right-hand animal is severely eroded and covered with mineral deposits and the head is not visible. However, careful review of the images (Figures 3 and 5) shows a faint latent image of a front paw resembling in size and attitude that of the male animal, rendered in the drawing on Figure 4. The absence of genitalia on Figure 6 suggests that this animal is female.

Figure 5
Figure 5. Extent of remaining painting of the right-hand (female) animal.
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Figure 6
Figure 6. Close-up. Note the grasping toe on the foreleg of left-hand (male) animal, the position of its tongue, and the rear end of the animal in front (female).
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Discussion

These new photographs seem to support the view that this panel represents Thylacoleo carnifex and the interpretation that it depicts a pre-mating episode (Akerman & Willing 2009). As regards the muzzle of the male, the pre-mating posture and the continuation of the muzzle line in the painting suggest that the projection seen in Figure 6 is a tongue and not a tooth as previously suggested (Akerman & Willing 2009). Concerning the markings on the pelt, the vertical stripes are very clear but the horizontal line delimitating the stripes on both animals is unnatural for pelt markings and is likely to represent the artist's intention to show stripe depth (Figures 3 and 4). Previous illustrations of Thylacoleo carnifex, drawn by reconstruction artists, depicted oval-shaped marks on the animal's coat (Australian Museum n.d.; Clode 2009) but it now seems that these spots should be changed to stripes. The male front paw is large and wide and is uplifted in a feline attitude. This large paw is a characteristic of the animal and, from the fossil record, is said to have had encased claws with a pseudo-opposable thumb. The images do not show any suggestion of a mane or whiskers and resembles more closely a modern jaguar or cougar in shape and attitude, as suggested by skeletal information (Tuniz et al. 2009). Although filling a niche similar to the felines, the species however is more closely allied to the Australian wombat (Vombatus ursinus).

If the identification of Thylacoleo carnifex is correct, the panel would represent a species that became extinct millennia ago, some 45 000 years ago or possibly later, as suggested by Akerman (2009). If so, it could provide potential evidence for human presence in the Kimberley region of north-western Australia when Thylacoleo carnifex was still extant. It is not entirely fanciful to propose such an early date, as at the Carpenter's Gap Shelter 1 site in the southern Kimberley an ochre-covered slab belongs to a context dated to c. 40 000 years ago (O'Connor & Fankhauser 2001). But, as Mulvaney (2012) cautions, "The antiquity of Australian rock art awaits definitive absolute dating."

It is possible that the painting under consideration represents a mainland Thylacine ('Tasmanian Tiger', which became extinct on the Australian mainland much more recently) of an unknown species with stripes extending along the whole body. I am inclined to discount this possibility, as all of the oldest and youngest rock paintings of Thylacines that I have seen show stripes on the hindquarters only and the paintings have a dog-like attitude with sharply pointed ears. Furthermore the tail in these paintings is never uplifted and the paws have no resemblance to the paw shown in the Kimberley panel under discussion.

Although this painting has importance as a possible depiction of an extinct Australian species, it also has further relevance for rock art. Carnivores are rarely represented in rock art, with notable exceptions, for example at Chauvet in the European Palaeolithic. In Australia the only other carnivores painted are the Thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) and the modern crocodile. This raises new questions relating to the cultural, social and spiritual context in which predators are represented.

Acknowledgments

I am indebted to Ray and Barb for their guidance and hospitality. The author acknowledges the Wunambal Gaambera people as the traditional custodians of the land.

References

  • AKERMAN, K. 2009. Interaction between humans and megafauna depicted in Australian rock art? Antiquity 83. Available at: http://www.antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/akerman322/ (accessed 9 April 2012).
  • AKERMAN, K. & T. WILLING. 2009. An ancient rock painting of a marsupial lion, Thylacoleo carnifex, from the Kimberley, Western Australia. Antiquity 83. Available at: http://www.antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/akerman319/ (accessed 9 April 2012).
  • Australian Museum, n.d. Thylacoleo carnifex. Available at: http://australianmuseum.net.au/Thylacoleo-carnifex (accessed 9 April 2012).
  • CLODE, D. 2009. Prehistoric giants: the megafauna of Australia. Melbourne: Museum Victoria.
  • MULVANEY, J. 2012. Human cognition: the Australian evidence. Antiquity 86 (in press).
  • O'CONNOR, S. & B. FANKHAUSER. 2001. Art at 40,000? One step closer: an ochre covered rock from Carpenters Gap Shelter 1, Kimberley region, in A. Anderson, J. Lilley & S. O'Connor (ed.) Histories of old ages: essays in honour of Rhys Jones: 287–300. Canberra: Pandanus Books, School of Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University.
  • TUNIZ, C., R. GILLESPIE & C. JONES . 2009. The bone readers: atoms, genes and the politics of Australia's deep past. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

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