Kakadu National Park
The world of Kakadu National Park is vast and wild. The area was an early Australian landing place when humans migrated from the islands of Southeast Asia and New Guinea, at least 40,000 years ago, during a time of lower sea levels. At the end of glacial periods, 10,000 years ago, sea levels rose again and the plants, people, and animals of Australia were left isolated.
The area has dry and monsoonal seasons. Differing ecosystems range from coastal and marine to dry sandstone and host a huge diversity of life.
In 1948, the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) of the Smithsonian Institution was part of a large-scale scientific expedition to Arnhem Land, during which many natural history specimens and artifacts, including weapons and musical instruments, baskets, and bark paintings, were collected. These are now located in the collections of several Australian museums and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.
People who lived here over a period of tens of thousands of years left evidence of their presence through their paintings. The people ground up minerals, red- and yellow-hued ochres, then mixed them with a natural material (like orchid root juice) to bind it to surfaces, which included bark and rock, or skin. In some areas, rock painting was done using beeswax pressed into rock. These Aboriginal rock paintings of Kakadu exhibit many styles of painting and pictograms that span a period from 20,000 years ago to the present; these paintings were important in gaining World Heritage site status for Kakadu National Park in 1981.
The paintings carry and transmit traditional knowledge, some practical and some related to the creation period when ancestral beings journeyed across the landscape, leaving language, ceremony, and rules to live by. The creation ancestors still live within the land, and the features of the land are traces of their actions. Life and locale are linked in a complex set of ideas reliant on geography, and places humans in a caretaking role for the land. A small number of Aboriginal people still live in the park, where they are able to maintain their cultural traditions in a modern world.
From Silas Roberts, first Chairman of the Northern Land Council:
Aboriginals see themselves as part of nature. We see all things natural as part of us. All the things on Earth we see as part human. This is told through the ideas of dreaming. By dreaming we mean the belief that long ago, these creatures started human society. These creatures, these great creatures are just as much alive today as they were in the beginning. They are everlasting and will never die. They are always part of the land and nature as we are. Our connection to all things natural is spiritual.
These bark paintings were collected in the Oenpelli region during the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition
People see the world in many ways; each view can inform and enrich a common vision for a sustainable future. The indigenous Bininj /Mungguy people who live in the park bring their own experiences and knowledge of what is required to live in a sustainable community. They consider that knowledge a sacred trust. Scientists, governments, organizations, and visitors bring their own knowledge and also their own way of perceiving. Can we be sure that we are seeing differing cultures on their own terms and not through the lens of our own way of seeing? How can we best work together to support a common vision of protection and respect for the land and its creatures?
Before the arrival of non-Aboriginal people, Bininj/Mungguy (the Aboriginal people of Kakadu) managed their country with fire. Fire made travelling easier; flushed out animals when hunting; protected food resources such as yams from later fires; cleared around camp sites; signaled to others; and fulfilled spiritual and cultural obligations. These burning practices promoted suitable habitats for a range of plants and animals. Plants grow rapidly during the monsoon season, and then accumulate as fuel during the dry season. With human population decreases due to disease or movement to towns and settlements, and without the traditional burnings, destructive wildfires have become more common. Continued monitoring of the Park's fire management program and its effectiveness involves ground observation, photographic records that show the effect of burning over time, and satellite mapping of fire scars.
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