What was it like to walk among woolly mammoths? How do we know what long-extinct animals looked like? Were there giant kangaroos that walked around the ancient Australian landscape? Fossils are very often our only way of guessing the answers to these questions, but in some rare instances, the ancient people who lived alongside the long-extinct fantastical creatures left us clues, carved in stone, that make the long-forgotten past, very real.
Australia is already well known for being home to some of the world’s most unique creatures, but today’s kangaroos, koalas, and wombats are nothing compared to the enormous, strange, and frankly, terrifying creatures that once roamed the land.
So, what would it have been like to encounter a marsupial hypercarnivore or the equivalent of a marsupial mastodon? Thanks to a treasure trove of ancient Aboriginal rock art, we don’t have to guess anymore!
What walked before us?
Usually, when we come across fossils, all we can do is make our best guess at what these creatures looked like. Bones can only tell us so much about a creature, and in places where fossils are hard to come by, we’re left with little to go on when it comes to understanding the animals that once roamed the land.
Luckily, in places like northern Australia’s Arnhem Land, we have another record to help us make sense of what once was: art.
Yes, our very human drive to take the world around us and put it to pen and paper—or in this case, ochre and rock—have left a different kind of record for scientists and researchers to study. Not a fossil record, but one left behind by human hands!
All across the caves and rock outcroppings of Arnhem Land, the first people to make their way to Australia documented the world they encountered. They painted creatures we would recognize today as turtles, fish, and kangaroos, but they also left some confusing images behind, too…
For many years, these images were written off. There was no fossil record in that area of some of the fantastical creatures they found painted on the rock walls. Now though, researchers are looking at these drawings with fresh eyes, and are finding a treasure trove of information about a region where fossils are pretty scarce!
To introduce us to some of these remarkable creatures and these beautiful images, we have a great video from PBS Eons to capture your imagination! (Think giant, single-toed, walking kangaroos!)
If you’re interested in all things long ago, check out the PBS Eons YouTube channel. I thought I was excited about dinosaurs, but PBS Eons has brought my love for the fossilized past to entirely new places! Giant sloths, crabs that aren’t crabs, and weird wide-mouthed frogs—the creatures of the ancient world were crazy!
Making the past more “real”
These artistic representations, when preserved for thousands, and maybe even tens of thousands of years, give us a direct line to a world that is long gone. Whether those images are helping us assemble a more accurate picture of the past, or discern what life was like for humans millennia ago, it is truly remarkable that we can touch these images that, in some places, are 40,000 years old. 2
Like an old photograph that makes the not-so-distant-past seem so much more real, cave paintings, ancient traditions, and artifacts buried long ago remind us that our shared humanity moves through time, too.
When we can see the world of enormous marsupials and those crazy-toed kangaroos through the eyes of the first people to make their way to Australia, we get one step closer to seeing the past. When we can hold a bowl buried thousands of years ago in ancient England, we feel our shared humanity. And when we are able to read the stories written down in the 13th century and saved from destruction in Timbuktu, we get to honor ancestors and cultures that could have been forgotten long ago.
What artifacts of our world will we leave behind?
How are we leaving footprints in history that generations from now, our ancestors will return to? These don’t have to be great works of art or literary masterpieces. No—what “fantastical” things are we recording that future people will look back on?
Maybe it’s literally the images of our first steps on the moon, using technology that our modern calculators make obsolete. Or perhaps, it’s the beauty and wonder of hand-drawn and animated Disney films. What will people make of viral dance videos in the far off future?
The footprints we leave behind don’t have to be works of art, but it certainly helps to remember that we are leaving our own marks on history. Whether in our family histories or in the way we give back to the world, we are all recording the weird and wonderful world we live in today in our own ways. How will your ancestors see the world you see?
Here are a few articles to inspire you a little about your own legacy…
Stay beautiful & keep laughing!
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- PBS Eons. “How Ancient Art Captured Australian Megafauna.” YouTube, 2 Sept. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zdm-6P6AdcA&feature=emb_title. Accessed 7 Dec. 2020. ↩
- Callaway, Ewen. “Is This Cave Painting Humanity’s Oldest Story?” Nature, 11 Dec. 2019, www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03826-4#:~:text=Ancient%20art&text=In%20the%20decades%20since%2C%20archaeologists,and%20El%20Castillo%20in%20Spain., 10.1038/d41586-019-03826-4. Accessed 7 Dec. 2020. ↩