Kakadu National Park

This unique archaeological and ethnological reserve has been inhabited continuously for more than 40,000 years. The cave paintings, rock carvings and archaeological sites record the skills and way of life of the region's inhabitants, from the hunter-gatherers of prehistoric times to the Aboriginal people still living there. It is a unique example of a complex of ecosystems, including tidal flats, floodplains, lowlands and plateaux, and provides a habitat for a wide range of rare or endemic plant and animal species.

The park comprises four major landforms: Arnhem land plateau and escarpment complex; southern hills and basins; Koolpinyah surface; and coastal riverine plains. The western rim of the Arnhem land plateau comprises escarpments ranging in height from about 30-330 m over a distance of some 500 km. In addition to the four major landforms, almost 500 km2 of intertidal and estuarine areas and two islands lie within the park. The tropical monsoonal climate, with its marked wet and dry seasons, is the major factor determining the surface water hydrology, vegetation and, over time, the landforms of the park region.

The vegetation can be classified into 13 broad categories, seven of which are dominated by a distinct species of Eucalyptus . Other categories comprise mangrove; samphire; lowland rainforest; paper bark swamp; seasonal flood plain and sandstone rainforest. Floristically it is the most diverse and most natural area of northern Australia with 46 species of plant considered rare or threatened, and nine restricted to the park.

Because of its diversity of land systems from marine and coastal habitats (which support substantial turtle and dugong populations) through to the arid sandstone escarpment, Kakadu is one of the world's richest wildlife parks. One-third of Australia's bird species and one quarter of its freshwater and estuarine fish species species are found in Kakadu. Huge concentrations of waterbirds (2.5 million) make seasonal use of the floodplains of the park and there are a diversity of invertebrates including 55 species of termite and 200 species of ant (10% of the total world number) as well as a wide diversity of small mammals. It also contains the most important breeding habitat in the world for the saltwater crocodile and the pig-nosed turtle - both threatened reptiles.

All the major landforms are incorporated in the park, which therefore provides an outstanding example of both ancient and recent geological changes to the continent. The park also contains many examples of relict species and species that represent the various periods of the biological evolution of the Australian fauna. The coastal rivers and flood plains illustrate the ecological effects of sea-level change in this part of Australia, as such; the park provides a special opportunity to investigate large-scale evolutionary processes in an intact landscape.

The region has been little affected by European settlement, in comparison with the remainder of the continent, hence the natural vegetation remains extensive in area and relatively unmodified, and its faunal composition is largely intact. Approximately 300 Aboriginal people reside in the park, including traditional owners and Aboriginals with recognized social and traditional attachments to the area. The park contains many Aboriginal archaeological, sacred and art sites.

Historical context

The Kakadu National Park is of the highest interest as an extensive archaeological and ethnological reservation. The first remains of human occupation in Australia, dating from nearly 40.000 years ago, have been identified there. On various sites, excavations have brought to light groups of stone tools, which, because of the axes of polished stone they include, are counted among the oldest in the world; further, in conjunction with the sites of rock paintings, workshops for preparing pigments have been studied which date back at least 18,000 years.

It is, of course, the aboriginal rock paintings of Kakadu which constituted the decisive argument for the inscription of this cultural property on the World Heritage List in 1981. based on cultural Criteria I, iii, and iv.

These paintings, executed in the open on rock walls, cover a long chronological span, since the oldest date back nearly 20,000 years and the most recent are from contemporary times.

For the historian, they constitute a fund of documentary evidence of primordial importance and a source which is unique. In fact, they serve as a source of information on the primal resources, the hunting and fishing activities, the social structure, and the ritual ceremonies of the aboriginal population which have succeeded one another on the site of Kakadu. They bear witness to vanished species. such as the Tasmanian wolf, and allow one to follow, in the details of equipment and of costume, the modifications brought to bear on traditional life by the contacts which were established with Macanese fishermen from the 16th century, and then with Europeans.

For the art historian, the ensemble of paintings and pictograms of Kakadu is unique to the extent that it combines multiple figurative and nonfigurative styles, which vary in their apparent chronology with those ensembles, recently inventoried, in southern Africa and in the Sahara. An aesthetic, peculiar to representations of animals and humans in Arnhem Land, may have, moreover, had an influence on graphic forms which appeared after 1930.

For the ethnologist, Kakadu offers a privileged field of exploration and observation, as the Aborigines who continue to inhabit this site contribute to the maintenance of the balance of the ecosystem and. through traditional techniques, ensure the necessary preservation of the most recent rock paintings. The social - if not the ritual - function of these is preserved to a certain extent.