Cambridge Archaeological Journal

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Cambridge Archaeological Journal (2010), 20:67-86 Cambridge University Press
Copyright © The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research 2010

Research Article

Naturalism, Nature and Questions of Style in Jinsha River Rock Art, Northwest Yunnan, China

Paul S.C. Taçona1, Li Ganga2, Yang Deconga3, Sally K. Maya4, Liu Honga5, Maxime Auberta6, Ji Xuepinga7, Darren Curnoea8 and Andy I.R. Herriesa9

a1 School of Humanities, Gold Coast campus, Griffith University, Queensland 4222, Australia,
a2 Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture Cultural Relics, Administration Office, Zhongdian, Yunnan, China,
a3 Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, 15-1, Chunmingli, Chunyuanxiaoqu, Kunming, Yunnan 650118, China,
a4 Research School of Humanities, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia,
a5 Yunnan Institute of Geography, Yunnan University, No. 20 Xue Fu Road, Kunming, Yunnan 650223, China,
a6 Research School of Earth Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia,
a7 Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, 15-1, Chunmingli, Chunyuanxiaoqu, Kunming, Yunnan 650118, China,
a8 School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of New South Wales, Sydney, New South Wales 2052, Australia,
a9 School of Medical Sciences, University of New South Wales, Sydney, New South Wales 2052, Australia,
Article author query
taçon psc [Google Scholar]
gang l [Google Scholar]
decong y [Google Scholar]
may sk [Google Scholar]
hong l [Google Scholar]
aubert m [Google Scholar]
xueping j [Google Scholar]
curnoe d [Google Scholar]
herries air [Google Scholar]


The naturalistic rock art of Yunnan Province is poorly known outside of China despite two decades of investigation by local researchers. The authors report on the first major international study of this art, its place in antiquity and its resemblance to some of the rock art of Europe, southern Africa and elsewhere. While not arguing a direct connection between China, Europe and other widely separated places, this article suggests that rock-art studies about the nature of style, culture contact and the transmission of iconography across space and time need to take better account of the results of neuroscience research, similar economic/ecological circumstances and the probability of independent invention.

(Received February 18 2009)

(Accepted May 26 2009)

(Revised September 01 2009)

Paul S.C. Taçon is Professor of Anthropology and Archaeology in the School of Humanities, Griffith University, Queensland. He has conducted archaeological and ethnographic fieldwork since 1980 and has over 70 months′ field experience on four continents. Professor Taçon has co-edited three books (including The Archaeology of Rock-art with Christopher Chippindale) and published over 150 academic and popular papers on prehistoric art, body art, material culture, colour, cultural evolution, identity and contemporary Indigenous issues.

Li Gang is Associate Professor and Director of Cultural Relics Administrative Institute of Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province, China. He has been studying rock paintings in the Jinsha River for 15 years. He is co-author of My Shangri-La Old City, and has published 22 research papers. He has engaged in the research and preservation of the cultural heritage of Tibetan areas in Yunnan Province, China for more than 20 years, presided over the construction of two museums and collaborates with cultural heritage scholars from Australia, China, Japan and the United States of America.

Yang Decong is Professor of Ethnology and Archaeology in Yunann Institute for Cultual Relics and Archaeology, Kunming, China. He has organized and conducted ethnological and archaeological fieldwork and research since 1990. He used to be vice director of the Yunnan Provincial Museum, is now the director of the said Institute and vice director of the Experts Group for Yunann Administration of Cultural Heritage. Professor Yang has edited or co-edited four books (including History and Culture of Yunann in Illustrations) and published over 20 academic papers and reports on archaeology, ethnology and cultural heritage.

Sally K. May is convenor of the Graduate Program in Liberal Arts (Cultural and Environmental Heritage) and lecturer in heritage, museums and material culture at the Research School of Humanities, Australian National University. Previously she was an ARC Postdoctoral Fellow based at Griffith University and a lecturer in the Department of Archaeology at Flinders University. Sally is the author of Collecting Cultures: Myth, Politics, and Collaboration in the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition and co-editor (with Danae Fiore and Ines Domingo Sanz) of Archaeologies of Art: Time, Place and Identity.

Liu Hong is Associate Professor of Karstology at Yunnan Institute of Geography, Yunnan University, Kunming,China. He has researched karst landscapes and speleology since 1988. Archaeology, especially cave-related, is one of his interests. He has published over 30 academic papers on karst landscapes and archaeology.

Maxime Aubert is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Research School of Earth Sciences, Australian National University. He has been involved in the development and application of open system uranium-series dating and other isotopic systems for archaeology. His work is especially related to the development of ‘open system’ in situ uranium-series dating of fossil bones and teeth. He also demonstrated the reliability of using Multi-Collector ICPMS and uranium-series techniques to date carbonate-covered rock art. In addition he has extensive rock-art recording and management/conservation expertise.

Ji Xueping is a Professor of Palaeolithic archaeology and Palaeoanthropology at Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, China. He has led and conducted a series of international joint expeditions on hominoids, hominins and hanging-coffin studies since 1995. His project on the Dahe Palaeolithic site was elected as one of the best ten archaeological excavations of 2006 in China. He has co-edited two books and published over 20 papers.

Darren Curnoe is Senior Lecturer in the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Faculty of Science, University of New South Wales, Sydney. A biological anthropologist, palaeontologist and geologist, he leads the UNSW Human and Primate Origins Program and founded and co-directs its Palaeosciences Laboratory. His interests mostly lie in understanding the hominin fossil record from the later Tertiary and Quaternary, including understanding the emergence, adaptations and diversification of modern humans. He conducts palaeoanthropological and geological work in Australia, China, South Africa and Kenya.

Andy I.R. Herries is an Australian Research Fellow (School of Medical Sciences), Head of the UNSW Archaeomagnetism Laboratory and lecturer in archaeology and geochronology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. He is also an Honorary Research Fellow (Geomagnetism Laboratory; Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences) at the University of Liverpool in the UK. He has conducted archaeological fieldwork since 1992 and has worked on sites in the UK, Bulgaria, China, South Africa, Cambodia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Spain and Greece ranging in age from 4 million years to the eighteenth century. His core interests are caves, human evolution and archaeomagnetism.