Study links early Aussie tattoos to rock art

Washington, July 4 : A new study seems to link between elaborately and distinctively designed tattoos on the skin of indigenous Aussies to characters and motifs found on rock art and portable objects.

Liam Brady of Monash University's Center for Australian Indigenous Studies says that apart from illustrating the link between body art and cultural identify, the study may also be helpful in unravelling mysteries about where certain groups travelled in the past, what their values and rituals were, and how they related to other cultures.

"Distinctive design conventions can be considered markers of social interaction so, in a way (they are) a cultural signature of sorts that archaeologists can use to understand ways people were interacting in the past," Discovery News quoted him as saying. 

Brady used a process called scarification to study rock art drawings; images found on early turtle shell, stone, and wood objects like bamboo tobacco pipes and drums; and images etched onto the human body.

"In a way, a scarred design could be interpreted as a tattoo. It was definitely a distinctive form of body ornamentation and it was permanent since the design was cut into the skin," he said. 

"Evidence for scarification is primarily via (19th century) anthropologists -- mainly A. C. Haddon -- who took black and white photographs of some designs, as well as drawing others into his notebooks in the late 1800's," he added.

The researcher focused his attention on a region called the Torres Strait, which is a collection of islands in tropical far northeastern Queensland.

His study showed that four primary motifs often repeated within the body art, rock art and objects: a fish headdress, a snake, a four-pointed star, and triangle variants. 

The fish headdress, usually made of a turtle shell decorated with feathers and rattles, was worn during ceremonies and has, in at least one instance, been linked to a "cult of the dead". 

On the other hand, the triangular designs were often scarred onto women's skin, and likely indicated that the individuals were in mourning.

Upon analysis of the materials, Brady that horticulturalists and hunter-gatherers inhabited the Torres Strait during its early history.

The researcher also found that aboriginal people at Cape York, a peninsula close to Australia, had "a different artistic system in operation, which did not incorporate many designs from Papua New Guinea," Brady said.

Based on his observations, Brady came to the conclusion that the Cape York residents were the hunter-gatherers, while groups in more northerly locations within Torres Strait seemed to have been horticulturalists.

Brady also said that the early farmers appeared to enjoy kinship links, and engage in extensive trade with Papua New Guinea groups because imagery mixed and matched more among them.

He said that similar studies in the future might help identify cultural groups in other regions, while also revealing their social interactions. 

According to him, such studies could prove particularly useful for other parts of Australia and New Zealand where tattooing and body art, as well as totems — protection entities often depicted with colorful imagery — were common. (ANI)