Artificial intelligence helps catalogue Aboriginal rock art in Far North Queensland: ABC

Posted Fri 15 Sep 2023

Read the original article and watch vide here on ABC

An Indigenous community in Far North Queensland is harnessing modern technology to help preserve and catalogue its culture.

The rural town of Laura, about 330 kilometres from Cairns, is surrounded by more than 10,000 rock art sites.

Cataloguing them is a time-consuming task, and in the past 10 years about 260 sites have been found.

Laura Indigenous Ranger Palmer Leecheu said the rock art needed to be protected.

Now an app allows local rangers and even school kids to take photos of the rock art, then tag and store it in a database.

Previously, this had to be done manually by the Laura Indigenous Rangers.

two children and an adult gather round a sandstone cliff with rock art

Laura, about 330 kilometres from Cairns, is surrounded by more than 10,000 rock art sites.

The Quinkan country rock art galleries depict a timeline of the land.

“The old people painted what they saw,” Laura Indigenous Ranger Palmer Leecheu said.

Mr Leecheu said Laura was on “sandstone country” which meant the art could be “eaten away” by water.

“The rock arts are very precious, always has to be looked after,” he said.

Griffith University archaeologist Lynley Wallis said new technology had been able to speed up the otherwise time-consuming process of cataloguing the rock art.

“It struck me if instead of us having to manually sit there and say ‘this is a kangaroo, it’s red and white’, we could get an AI to learn how to do that,” she said.

woman smiling at camera

Archaeologist Lynley Wallis says she is grateful to be able to work with the Indigenous community.

The university approached local Indigenous rangers and elders with the idea of using AI to record the rock art.

“For them, recording rock art is an incredibly big job,” she said.

“They’ve been doing it for decades and they’ve only scratched the surface.”

Indigenous man smiling at camera

Ang-Gnarra Aboriginal Corporation Deputy Chairman Gene Ross says AI has made documenting rock art faster and easier.

Gene Ross, Ang-Gnarra Aboriginal Corporation deputy chairman and Laura ranger, said many sites were yet to be discovered.

“There are about 260 sites we’ve found within in the past 10 years,” Mr Ross said.

He said his grandmothers and grandfathers had worked to document the rock art over the years, but capturing the motifs with AI was a much faster and easier way.

Ancient art and a digital divide

Students from Laura State School have also been learning how to use the AI tool in the classroom to help identify and catalogue the rock art on country.

Grade 3 student Chase McKellar-Musgrave said his favourite part of the project was learning about his culture.

His brother George, who is in grade 4, said he wanted to continue documenting rock art when he got older.

“We are learning a lot from the rangers,” George said.

mother and sons smile at each other

Laura Indigenous Ranger Ellenore Lowdown’s sons, George and Chase McKellar-Musgrave, having been using AI to capture rock art.

Indigenous elders had requested the project to provide employment and educational opportunities for the next generation, Professor Wallis said.

The university hosted lessons on science and technology and related it to cultural heritage on trips to the rock art sites.

Professor Wallis said there was also a focus on closing the “digital divide” many students in remote communities face.

“Part of the project was about enhancing the kids’ experiences and engagement with digital technologies from a primary school level so that they would have a better capacity to step into a digital world as they get older,” she said.

‘The old people are smiling’

Laura Indigenous Ranger Ellenore Lowdown was apprehensive about the university’s involvement at first, but no longer.

“Griffith has done an amazing job. They aged some of the rock art sites,” she said.

“That is a pretty big thing for the traditional owners of Laura.”

Professor Wallis said she was very grateful to be able to work with the Indigenous community.

“Indigenous people are incredibly generous with their knowledge despite the sometimes incredibly traumatic history we have had in Australia,” she said.

“The fact that Indigenous people can still welcome these relationships with white fellas in this country speaks to their generosity.”

Mr Ross said using the AI to record the rock art had brought great joy to the community’s elders.

“All the old people are smiling. They’re seeing paintings they haven’t seen since they were kids and some paintings they haven’t seen,” he said.

Professor Wallis said the community owned all the images collected by the AI.

“We recognise first and foremost that all of the Indigenous IP remains vested with the indigenous community,” she said.