The Marra Wonga rock shelter in central Queensland may have more petroglyphs (rock engravings) than any other single site in the world. Impressive as that is, a study of the art there reports something even more distinctive and significant: a series of paintings telling the story of the Seven Sisters, also known as the Pleiades.
The Pleiades is a cluster of bright stars that has inspired stories the world over. Some of these are remarkably similar, despite being from cultures half a world apart. In particular, the tales told by the ancient Greeks bear a strong resemblance to those of Indigenous Australians.
Although there are variations in the telling across the vast expanses of northern Australia, the story of seven sisters chased by a man is a common feature. As in the Greek version, the sisters escape into the sky to become the Pleiades but are pursued by a hunter, represented by Orion. One version is represented at the Marra Wonga shelter, stretched over 160 meters (530 feet). A study in the journal Australian Archaeology describes some of the petroglyphs, including those providing a unique insight into the Seven Sisters’ story.
"All rock art sites have or once had stories associated with particular designs and the sites themselves, as well as the landscapes they are a part of," said Professor Paul Tacon of Griffith University in a statement. “But we know of no other rock art site anywhere in the world with a narrative that runs across the entirety of the site.”
At least 15,000 petroglyphs are found at the Marra Wonga site, investigating all of them is the project of a lifetime. This may well be the largest number found at any single location in the world, Tacon told IFLScience. Despite this, the site has not been heavily studied and lacks the protection granted to The Palace, another large North Queensland site.
Tacon is seeking to redress this, collaborating with fellow academics and representatives of the Iningai and Birri Gubba peoples.
Although the paper draws attention to several specific petroglyphs and repeated themes, its main focus is on 10 clusters of engravings. Read south to north, “the order makes sense for contemporary Aboriginal community members as different parts of the Seven Sisters Dreaming story, in the correct sequence,” Tacon said.
Along with seven stars to represent the sisters, the engravings represent Wattanuri, the Ancestral Being who chased them, the snake he turned into, his boomerang, the track of a dingo who protected the sisters, and six-toed footprints commonly associated with powerful beings. There is also an engraving of a large penis. This might be read as evidence some things never change, but Wattanuri’s oversized genitalia is a widespread feature of the story.
The age of the engravings is hard to identify. Some petroglyphs at the site are thought to have been made in the last century, but others are in styles made elsewhere more than 5,000 years ago. Tacon told IFLScience those that make up the Seven Sisters narrative show similar wear to each other, as if made at the same time, but it is hard to know when that was.
The authors even found a previously unnoticed eighth star hidden at the end of the sequence.
Even in cultures that tell a different story for the Pleiades, the cluster is associated with the number seven. However, six stars are visible to people with normal eyesight under dark skies. Telescopes reveal the cluster’s seventh star is barely brighter than the eighth and ninth, making this consensus a puzzle.
“Some people have suggested that the story may be very, very old and may have arisen at a time when our ancestors were starting to spread across the world and there were seven visible,” Tacon told IFLScience. “It does seem more than coincidence that seven are referred to across the world.” Many traditions refer to one of the sisters hiding herself, perhaps represented here by the eighth star.
The paper is published in Australian Archaeology.