Kakadu’s rock art is world class – it’s one of the reasons for our World Heritage status. The paintings provide a fascinating record of Aboriginal life over thousands of years. With paintings up to 20,000 years old, this is one of the longest historical records of any group of people in the world.
Our main rock art galleries are at Ubirr, Nourlangie and Nanguluwur. Look for naturalistic paintings of animals, traditional x-ray art, and paintings of early contact with European people.
The local Aboriginal word for rock art is gunbim. For us, art is an expression of cultural identity and connection to country. The act of painting is generally more important than the painting itself so many older paintings are covered by younger ones.
Types of rock art
Rock art is still very relevant to local Aboriginal people. It shows objects we still use, animals we still hunt and activities we still do.
Animals were often painted to increase their abundance and to ensure a successful hunt, by placing people in touch with the spirit of the animal.
At some sites, paintings depict aspects of particular ceremonies.
Stories and learning
Stories were painted about the Creation Ancestors, who gave shape to the world.
Sorcery and magic
Paintings could be used to manipulate events and influence people's lives
For play and practice
The rock art in Kakadu was painted for a number of reasons.
Some sites and paintings could only be painted by people with the right knowledge. Sorcery paintings could be painted only by the holder of magic knowledge, for instance. Other paintings, particularly at sites depicting stories of Creation Ancestors, were often repainted.
You can guess the rough age of a painting based on what it shows. Want to find out how? Visit our corporate site.
The colours in our rock art paintings come from several naturally occurring minerals.
To make the paint, our ancestors crushed the pigments on a stone palette and mixed it with water to make a paste. They made brushes from human hair, chewed sticks, reeds and feathers. Sometimes, they would blow wet pigments from their mouths around objects, to create a stencil. You can see hand stencils like this at Ubirr and Naguluwurr.
Of all the paints, haematite lasts longest. As a result, the majority of old paintings that you see today are completely red.
Red: haematite, an iron-rich rock.
Yellow/orange: limonite and goethite.
Red/yellow/orange: ochre, an iron-stained clay that can be made darker by baking it in a fire before grinding.
White: kaolin (pipeclay) and huntite.
Black: manganese oxide and charcoal, although charcoal is not a mineral and does not last long.
Bininj/Mungguy artists continue to paint on bark, paper, canvas and fabric. In some cases, the act of painting puts artists in touch with their Creation Ancestors - a powerful experience.
You’ll find a thriving arts community in Kakadu and the surrounding region. Local artworks are displayed at the Marrawuddi Gallery at Bowali Visitor Centre and the Warradjan Cultural Centre, or you can venture to nearby Arnhem Land to visit the Injalak Arts Centre at Gunbalanya.
The image above is of the Rainbow serpent and this makes up part of the Kakadu National Park logo - read our stories page to find out more about this work.
Aboriginal artists still use ochre for their paintings, but often use paper or canvas rather than the traditional bark. Didgeridoos, clap sticks, carvings and hunting tools are made from different bush timbers.
Women have a long tradition of collecting plant fibres and bush dyes which are woven into baskets, mats and jewellery pieces. Another increasingly popular art form is screen printing, applying traditional and contemporary designs onto fabrics.