Aboriginal cultural heritage

Australian Aboriginal cultures are the oldest living cultures in the world, dating back over 50,000 years. The Aboriginal inhabitants of the Djelk and Warddeken IPAs have never been dispossessed of their land, and such rare continuity with traditional life and customs affords the region great cultural integrity.

For the traditional owners of the Djelk and Warddeken IPAs, the region is a sentient landscape where spirits of ancestors and creation beings remain active and part of the everyday lives of people. The richness of culture is reflected by the large number of different clan groups, languages and different religious ceremonies and artistic forms in design, music and dance.

The region is also famous for its World Heritage status rock art paintings which represent not only the world's longest continuing art tradition but also the longest record of human endeavour (Northern Territory Government: Rock Art Chronology 2012).

Indigenous languages

The Aboriginal languages of the region represent a great storehouse of knowledge and tradition about the environment and culture. There is a greater density of Aboriginal language groups in the IPAs than anywhere else in Australia. The most significant linguistic feature in the region is the ability of an individual or community to use multiple languages (Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation 2009).

With more than a dozen language groups, the Djelk IPA is perhaps the most multilingual region in the world and most people have command of at least three of these languages. English is in most cases a third or fourth language. The four principal languages in the Djelk IPA are Burrara, Na-kara, Njébbanna and Kunbarlang. Languages of the Warddeken IPA are part of the Bininj Kunwok language group. Kundedjnjenhmi is the language of clans from the high plateau country of Western Arnhem Land.

Land ownership and cultural groups

Within the IPAs, traditional land ownership and the management of its resources is governed by customary rights which are passed down from both parents (Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation 2009, Warddeken Land Management Limited 2009a,b). Throughout the IPAs land ownership is most commonly expressed by reference to clans and clan estates. Land ownership is primarily inherited paternally but responsibilities for land and resource management can also come from the mother’s side. As a consequence many people own or have access rights to more than one clan estate.

The Djelk IPA includes over 102 clan estates and there are at least 30 clan groups within the Warddeken IPA (Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation 2009). Each clan estate is associated with numerous sites of cultural significance that form the cultural landscape. For Aboriginal people, the spiritual and biophysical features of the land are of equal management importance (Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation 2009).

Traditional knowledge

There is an invaluable body of traditional ecological knowledge and cultural knowledge held by traditional owners, particularly elders. This information is of great value to the younger generations as well as western science (Warddeken Land Management Limited 2009a). Keeping culture strong and ensuring the intergenerational transfer of knowledge are key goals of the traditional owners of the Djelk and Warddeken IPAs.

Rock art and archaeological sites

The signs of enduring habitation on the IPAs include the tens of thousands of ochred images left in caves and on cliffs (Cooke 2009). Other examples of this complex archaeology include rock shelters, bedrock grinding patches, shell middens and surface shell scatters, burial sites, surface scatters of stone artefacts, rock art sites and contact sites (Warddeken Land Management Limited 2009b). Many of the rockshelter occupation sites include ancestral skeletal remains (burials).

The Arnhem Land plateau rock art galleries have been described as “one of the world’s supreme art galleries” (Mulvaney, K. in Chaloupka 1993). They are internationally renowned as the most complex and extensive body of rock art in the world. The rock art describes the history of human civilisation in Australia with the earliest paintings dating to 50,000 years ago, the pre-estuarine period when Australia was still joined by a land bridge to New Guinea. The paintings reflect the life of the artists and communities that created them. Subjects include:

  • geometric designs
  • tracks of humans
  • animals and birds (including those now extinct such as the Thylacine)
  • naturalistic or figurative representations of humans, animals and birds - both terrestrial and marine.
  • history of European settlement in the north and its far-reaching effects on wildlife
  • changes in tool and weapon technologies over millennia (Northern Territory Government: Rock Art Chronology 2012).

Although far less researched than the World Heritage listed rock art of the adjacent and contiguous Kakadu National Park, the cultural heritage values of the rock art in the IPAs is comparable in terms of richness, complexity, diversity and antiquity of the archaeological record.


Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation (2009). Djelk Indigenous Protected Area - Central Northern Arnhem Land Management Plan 2009.

Cooke, P.M. (2009). Buffalo and tin, baki and Jesus: the creation of a modern wilderness. In J. Russell-Smith, P.J. Whitehead, and P. Cooke. Culture, Ecology and Economy of Fire Management in North Australian Savannas: Rekindling the Wurrk Tradition. Melbourne: CSIRO Publications. 

Chaloupka, G. (1993). Journey In Time: The World’s Longest Continuing Art Tradition. Chatswood, NSW: Reed.

Northern Territory Government: Rock Art Chronology (2012). NRETA Web site: http://www.nretas.nt.gov.au/arts-and-museums/museums/collection/history/chronology.

Warddeken Land Management Limited (2009a). Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area Arnhem Land Plateau, Northern Territory Management Plan 2009-2013.

Warddeken Land Management Limited (2009b). Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area Arnhem Land Plateau Technical Information Document.