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View photo gallery for more images. (Paul S.C. Tacon, Griffith University)

This year, an Aboriginal elder, Ronald Lamilami, guided scientists through the rock art of Arnhem Land, a peninsula that has always been a special site to the native Australians. They never imagined what they would see--at least 150 previously undocumented sites across 30 square miles (with hundreds more awaiting discovery) that appear to comprise the longest more or less continuous record mankind has ever created.

The paintings, stencils, and prints range from 15,000 to just 50 years old, and they are overhauling the history of northern Australia. There are, according to archaeologist Paul Tacon, simply too many highlights to even list. Lamilami showed them detailed, naturalistic depictions of life-size kangaroos, 16-foot-long crocodiles, Tasmanian devils, and extinct thylacines (marsupial wolves). The paintings of humans include everything from 6,000-year-old figures to boxing scenes (and cars and airplanes) from the 20th century.

The rediscovery of this art is changing the idea that people on the continent were largely isolated before the 18th century. Among the works are 81 paintings of boats from a wide variety of cultures and time periods--from modern ocean liners and 19th-century European vessels, to dugout canoes and the ships of Makassan traders from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Together these intersections of artistry and archaeology suggest a long, intricate history of contact with the outside world across hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.

"From our recent research," says Griffith University archaeologist Paul Tacon, "we conclude that Australian history, especially that of northern Australia, is much more complex, much richer than previously thought."

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