A ground-breaking new TV series about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities working closely with leading archaeologists to reveal more than 50,000 years of continuous occupation is expected to dramatically raise the profile of Indigenous heritage in Australia.
First Footprints, a visually stunning four-part series to air on the ABC from this Sunday (14 July), was filmed by Martin Butler and Bentley Dean - makers of the award-winning film Contact - under the guidance of leading Australian archaeologist and Winthrop Professor Peter Veth, of The University of Western Australia's Centre for Rock Art Research and Management.
The series uses the world's oldest oral stories, new archaeological discoveries, breathtaking rock art, computer-generated imagery and never-before-seen archival footage to tell the story of human history's original pioneers.
Apart from exploring the continuous nature of a culture 10 times older than ancient Egypt, the series reveals for the first time the sheer number and significance of rock art and other sites of global importance across Australia. It's a precious record which Professor Veth said many Australians were still to fully appreciate.
"This series is like unfolding a canvas on which millions of rock art, habitation and historic sites come into startling relief," Professor Veth said. "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people talk about their cultural heritage and world views and what these extraordinary deep-time narratives provided by archaeology mean to them.
"The fact there are more than a million engravings on the Dampier Archipelago/Burrup Peninsula alone, over 4000 art sites near Sydney, indeed tens of millions of painted and engraved motifs throughout Australia - including the earliest known depictions of the human face - is pretty breathtaking and something the larger community just hasn't known about. It's never been put together before."
Professor Veth said the series underscored the urgent need for proper management and education programs and bolsters the case to the Federal Government for expediting the World Heritage listing of the Dampier Archipelago, known to Aboriginal people as Murujuga.
"It's probably the world's largest rock art province and it has been found to have the values required for world heritage listing," he said. "A unique asset like this is of outstanding universal value and deserves special attention. There's still no public interpretation up there. No signage. It's just something that requires doing."
He said that while education programs had kick-started in Australia, the nation still lagged far behind others in recognising the deep-time cultural heritage of the First Australians.
"It's terribly underdeveloped compared to France, Britain, the US or even parts of China and South America," he said. "You can look at other countries and see how they view heritage as a way of understanding other cultures, a way of understanding identity and seeing it as an asset, and it just hasn't happened yet in Australia.
"We have these phenomenal art provinces in the Kimberley, the Pilbara, Arnhem Land, Western Desert and elsewhere, that we have been working on with Traditional Owners for decades and which are culturally outstanding. Yet people still say to you over dinner ‘What do you do in Australian archaeology? What do you work on?'"
Most of all, the series is a celebration of the nation's cultural legacy, Professor Veth said.
"Apart from the beautiful graphics and the incredible narrative, it's a celebration of people speaking about country and this very ‘deep time' and continuous connection they have with it," he said. "We have rangers, traditional owners, curators, heads of land councils, and female community members profiled as well - quite a lot of women featured which is not the norm. And they're talking about their heritage, their country and the rights they have to speak for it."
Producers/directors Martin Butler and Bentley Dean said First Footprints represented an important contribution to Australia's sense of national identity.
"For the first time on television the stunning achievements of the nation's Aboriginal ancestors are brought to life," they said. "We should all embrace the priceless National Heritage that is our deep past.
"The wealth of the rock art in Australia, and the way it can inform our knowledge of the past, is truly breathtaking. There's more rock art here than in most of the rest of the world put together, and it can reveal tens of thousands of years of life."
First Footprints came about after the film-makers encountered Professor Veth working closely with traditional custodians on the Canning Stock Route several years ago.
"It was from discussions with Peter and (fellow UWA rock art specialist, Winthrop Professor) Jo McDonald that First Footprints developed," Mr Butler said. "Their knowledge of, and passion for, our ancient past inspired us to take on this challenging idea for television. Unstintingly generous and supportive, they were also great fun to work without in the bush."
Professor Veth is UWA's Kimberley Foundation Ian Potter Chair in Rock Art, and Professor McDonald is the University's Rio Tinto Chair in Rock Art Studies.
- First Footprints airs on ABC1 at 9.25pm from this Sunday. UWA's Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Winthrop Professor Krishna Sen, will hold a formal launch at 4pm on Friday, July 12, in the Social Sciences Lecture Theatre. The launch will include presentations by Professors Veth and Professor McDonald, who also appear throughout the series.
Winthrop Professor Peter Veth (UWA Centre for Rock Art Research and Management) (+61 8) 6488 1807 / (+61 4) 08 094 607
Michael Sinclair-Jones (UWA Public Affairs) (+61 8) 6488 3229 / (+61 4) 00 700 783