Bigge Island

Ancient Aboriginal Rock Art from Australia's 'Top End'

Shirley Campbell|June 9, 2015|Blog Post

Shirley Campbell is a social anthropologist with a special interest in the indigenous peoples of Australia, Melanesia, and the Pacific. After growing up in California, she has widely traveled and experienced firsthand the ways in which communities form and develop distinct, yet interrelated cultures. 

The ‘Top End’ of northern Australia contains the world’s greatest collection of rock art. From Cape York Peninsula in the east, across the north and southwest into the Pilbara region of Western Australia, there are thousands upon thousands of rock art galleries. The true number remains unknown due largely to the rugged and remote landscape of the Top End.  To help give a sense of the density of rock art sites, in western Arnhem Land alone, the tally to date is 923 galleries—compared with only 275 better-known Palaeolithic art sites in Western Europe!

It is likely that the first people to walk to the Australian continent over 50,000 years ago did so across the Sahul shelf, which extends northwards from the Kimberley towards the Indonesian archipelago. Following the end of the last glaciation, some 10,000 years ago, sea levels rose, covering the site of these first footprints. Today, the Indian Ocean nudges the Kimberley coastline, its massive tidal range repeatedly covering and revealing the ancient, 1.8-billion-year-old King Leopold sandstones. It is in this rugged sandstone and basalt country that ancient and contemporary indigenous Australians recorded significant aspects of their lives onto rock surfaces.

Excavated deposits in northern Australia suggest the earliest arrivals to this area painted images on rock walls. Fragments of ochred rock in deposits at Carpenter’s Gap in the Kimberley may be evidence of the early use of pigments, in deposits dated 39,700 years old, while further east in Western Arnhem Land pigment fragments date back to between 52,000 and 61,000 years old. These dates would put the earliest rock painting activity in the world in Western Arnhem Land!

There are two distinct types of rock art in the Kimberley—the older Gwion Gwion, or ‘Bradshaw,’ paintings, and the more contemporary Wandjina paintings. Although local Aboriginal people were aware of the Gwion Gwion paintings adorning rock walls, the first European sighting and recording of these enigmatic figures was by grazier Joseph Bradshaw, hence the attribution of his ‘white fella’ name to these paintings. Bradshaw led an expedition in 1891 to survey potential grazing leases beyond the King Leopold Ranges in the Kimberley. One afternoon, in 1891, he and his brother separated from the main group and stumbled upon drawings that did not resemble the more familiar Wandjina-style paintings. He made sketches and later, upon returning to Melbourne, described the paintings in an address to the Royal Geological Society. His discovery excited interest, and a number of people went in search of the paintings. With the assistance of local Aboriginal people, many more sites were soon discovered.

While Aboriginals in the Kimberley were painters responsible for maintenance of the Wandjina, they were less interested in the older Gwion Gwion paintings, claiming these were made by a different people long ago. Indeed, the only fixed date thus far for the antiquity of the Gwion Gwion is 17,500 years, obtained from dating a mud-wasp nest. It is likely that people painted the Gwion Gwion images on rock surfaces at the time of the last Glacial Maximum, 20,000 to 15,000 years ago. What distinguishes these paintings in particular is their whimsical quality and fine line representation of people dancing, hunting, and, on occasion, fighting. Paintings of animals are depicted in equally dainty, animated postures. Wandjina paintings, on the other hand, represent sacred images of ancestral spirits responsible for bringing rain during the wet season and ensuring the abundance of food for the people who continue to care for these images. At least 4,000 years old, Wandjina are part of a living cultural form. They are commonly painted on clay backgrounds covering older paintings. They are characterized by large haloed heads with staring eyes and the absence of mouths, their power so strong that there is no need for speech.

There are also many ‘contact’ paintings made over the last 200 years depicting ships sailing along the Kimberley coast; ships with explorers, traders, and government officials all keen to record and control this remote part of Australia. The number and diversity of Kimberley rock art makes this region one of the most significant rock art centers in the world, many of which can be seen while sailing along the Kimberley coast.

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