Wellington, Oct 6 : An extraordinary collection of ancient rock art have suggested that the people of northern Australia have been interacting with seafaring visitors from Asia and Europe for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years.
According to a report in The New Zealand Herald, the paintings were found in the Arnhem Land, which juts out into the Arafura Sea at the top of Australia.
Alongside ancient paintings of thylacines, a mammal long extinct on the mainland, are images documenting modern-day inventions - a car, a bicycle wheel, a biplane and a rifle, as well as portraits of a missionary and a sea captain.
Scientists documenting the rock art, spread across at least 100 sites in the remote Wellington Range, say it ranks among the world's finest.
It also appears to rewrite Australian history, undermining the widely held assumption that the continent was isolated and largely unvisited until the First Fleet arrived in 1788.
The paintings suggest that the people of northern Australia have been interacting with seafaring visitors from Asia and Europe for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years.
A team of scientists on an expedition to the Range recorded 81 images of ships, ranging from the vessels of Macassan traders from Sulawesi (now part of Indonesia) to dugout canoes, 19th-century British tall ships, 20th-century steamers and Japanese pearling luggers.
They even found paintings of a luxury cruise ship and a World War II destroyer.
The scientists surveying the paintings with the help of a local Aboriginal elder, Ronald Lamilami, say they represent possibly the longest continuous record in the world.
"This seems to have been a key location where people went back again and again, adding to the art over thousands of years and many hundreds of generations," said Professor Paul Tacon, an archaeologist from Griffith University in Queensland.
"Each time they went back, they added new imagery and new experiences to the growing history book that they were creating. Many Aboriginal people across northern Australia describe these sorts of sites as their history books, or libraries," he added.
Tacon's team, which travelled to Arnhem Land last month, was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the art.
In one rock shelter alone, they found 1500 paintings, comprising "more 'contact era' art and more varied imagery than any other site in the world", according to Tacon.
"This area is astounding. Every time we went out, we had a plan to survey a particular stretch of the range, but we could hardly move at all, because we were continually finding sites," he said.
"Over a few days, we found 100 previously undocumented sites, and we've only just scratched the surface," he added.