Rock Art Reveals Rare Moluccan Vessels

Australia’s Ancient Maritime Connections: Rock Art Reveals Rare Moluccan Vessels

The newly found images portray Moluccan watercraft, shedding light on the possibility of historical connections between regions beyond Makassar, Sulawesi. This remarkable find opens up new avenues for understanding the early interactions and maritime exchanges between Southeast Asia and Australia.


Archaeologists from Flinders University have discovered rare rock art depictions of Moluccan watercraft in Awunbarna, Arnhem Land, that might be the first archaeological proof of Southeast Asian visitors to Australia from regions beyond Makassar, Sulawesi.

Forgotten Encounters Brought to Light

This rock art provides fresh insights into elusive and previously undocumented interactions between Awunbarna’s Indigenous people and visitors from the Moluccas, north of Australia.


The rock art features two watercrafts adorned with motifs reminiscent of Moluccan vessels, distinct from the Macassan prahus and Western boats usually depicted in Northern Australia’s contact sites. Triangular flags, pennants, and prow adornments hint at their martial status.

Link to Eastern Maluku Tenggara, Indonesia

Comparison with historically documented watercraft from Island Southeast Asia suggests that these vessels likely hailed from eastern Maluku Tenggara, Indonesia.

Return of Aboriginal Explorers?

The Moluccan vessels’ rock art depiction could mean that Aboriginal people journeyed north, encountered these watercraft, and painted them upon returning home.

Published in the journal History Archaeology, the researchers argue that the illustrations’ nature indicates detailed knowledge of these vessels, gained either through close or prolonged observation, or firsthand experience of voyaging in them.


Maritime Power Projection in Rock Art

The Moluccan ‘fighting craft’ identified in the paintings might be associated with trade, fishing, resource exploitation, headhunting, or slavery. The appearance of such vessels suggests episodes of physical violence or at least displays of power.

Obscure Encounters: More Pieces of the Puzzle Needed

The precise circumstances of these encounters between the Amunbarna Aboriginal rock art artists and these Moluccan vessels remain unclear. Further research may fill in the gaps.

Dr. Mick de Ruyter, a maritime archaeologist at Flinders University, explains that this unique identification of Moluccan vessels offers evidence of obscure interactions between the Aboriginal people of northern Australia and people from Island Southeast Asia. Still, the precise nature of these meetings remains shrouded in mystery.

Pioneers or Casual Voyagers?

The motifs bolster existing theories of occasional or accidental voyages from Indonesia to the Australian coastline prior to or alongside regular trepang fishing visits.

Flinders University maritime archaeologist, Associate Professor Wendy van Duivenvoorde, cites mid-seventeenth-century reports from Dutch explorers in the Moluccas of island inhabitants frequently sailing to Australia’s north coast.


Moluccan Mariners: Traders or Warriors?

The presence of these Moluccan fighting vessels in Arnhem Land could reshape the accepted narrative of Macassan coastal fishing and trading. It offers a clearer understanding of cultural contact with Southeast Asia.

Unique Rock Art Depictions: Shaking Up History

Archaeologist Dr. Daryl Wesley points out that the unique combination of shape, proportion, and configuration in these rock art drawings is missing from historical records on Aboriginal watercraft. These findings hold significant implications for the reasons mariners from these islands may have visited the northern Australian coastline, and the resulting intercultural encounters on the Arnhem Land coast.

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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