Serpent is core of a religion

November 1, 1996

The Rainbow Serpent painted by Australian Aborigines could be the world's oldest religious icon, new research has revealed.

A study in the Arnhem Land region of the Northern Territory found the Rainbow Serpent has been a central feature of Aboriginal rock art for 6,000 years.

"Here we have a continuous religious icon and the core of a religious system that goes back 6,000 years and continues to the present day," said Paul Tacon, an anthropologist with the Australian Museum in Sydney.

"As far as we're aware, this is the longest continuous (religious) tradition that has been traced," said Christopher Chippindale, a Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology curator. The two made the discovery along with Meredith Wilson, a PhD student at the Australian National University.

Dr Tacon said the research indicated many aspects of Aboriginal oral history about the rainbow serpent had an archaeological context. It is thought that the Rainbow Serpent, a symbol of both creation and destruction, was "born" in a period of intense environmental and social change. Climate change forced coastal dwellers inland as sea levels rose and flooding made sea creatures, snakes and rainbows commonplace.

Dr Chippindale said Ms Wilson was the first to compare them with the pipefish, closely related to the seahorse. "The rainbow serpent starts off as closely following the form of a pipefish, then as time passes it takes a more varied form and in recent times (is linked with) stories about the making of the country," he said.

"The work develops a demonstration of how rich and varied and old and enduring Aboriginal culture is," Dr Chippendale said.

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