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Researchers say the rock art may be a record of “fighting craft” from present-day Indonesia

Some 50 years ago, two strange paintings were found inside a cave in northern Australia. They are likely hundreds of years old, and they depict a pair of boats with unfamiliar features that have baffled experts ever since their discovery. 

Now, in a study published in the journal Historical Archaeology, researchers may have finally identified the images, shedding light on Indigenous stories that have long been erased.

While paintings depicting Indonesian fishing boats—and eventually European ships—have been found nearby, the two mystery boats are different: The researchers say that the vessels are “fighting craft” from the Moluccas, a group of Indonesian islands directly north of Australia.

“These motifs support existing ideas that sporadic or accidental voyages from Indonesia to the Australian coastline took place before or alongside regular trepang [Indonesian for ‘sea cucumber’] fishing visits,” says study lead author Mick de Ruyter, a maritime archaeologist at Flinders University in Australia, in a statement from the university.  

The exact circumstances under which Aboriginal populations encountered the Moluccan boats is uncertain. Still, the researchers write that the presence of fighting craft “implies instances of physical violence or at least a projection of power.” Conflict may have brewed between the two groups, perhaps related to trade, head-hunting or slavery.

Sue O’Connor, an archaeologist at Australian National University who was not involved in the study, suggests another possibility: that Aboriginal groups may have visited the Moluccas. “Either this demonstrates that we’ve had that craft visiting the Arnhem Land [a region in northern Australia] shores or people from Arnhem Land [had been] going to them in the Moluccan region and seeing crafts there and coming back and painting them,” she tells Lillian Rangiah of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

The researchers were also stunned by the level of detail captured in the paintings. Such precision indicates that the Indigenous artists spent a substantial amount of time with these ships, rather than simply getting “a fleeting view from the shoreline,” study co-author Daryl Wesley, an archaeologist at Flinders University, tells the ABC. “They’ve gotten so many things correct about the paddles, the prowl boards, all the pennants and everything in decorative details of the ship.”

Reports from Dutch colonists reveal that by the 17th century, groups from the Moluccas were sailing “regularly” to Australia, per the university’s statement.

Paul Tacon, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Australia, was not involved with the study, but he is working with Wesley and a larger team to study how Aboriginal groups recorded their interactions with foreign travelers. He tells Jennifer Nalewicki of Live Science that the new study offers promising insights.  “This rigorous research convincingly shows evidence of contact between Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land, Australia, and mariners from Moluccan islands hundreds of years ago,” he adds.

Source: Christopher Parker,