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Kimberley Rock Art

Gwion Gwion paintings (Bradshaws)
Wandjina paintings

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Aboriginal Gwion Gwion 'tassel' paintings (formerly Bradshaws), Kimberley, Western Australia.
Gwion Gwion rock paintings in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Image by TimJN1. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Kimberley's Ancient Art

The Kimberley region in Western Australia, is home to an estimated 100,000 images of aboriginal rock art, from the Stone Age to the Modern era.

This collection of prehistoric art includes archaic handprints and rock engravings dating back to the earliest human habitation.

But it is most famous for its Gwion Gwion paintings (formerly known as Bradshaws, after Joseph Bradshaw) and Wandjina pictures, derived from aboriginal mythology.

But like the Burrup Peninsula rock art to the west and the Ubirr rock art to the east, most of Kimberley's artworks are undated, and what little scientific dating has been done, has failed to identify any artwork that predates the Last Glacial Maximum, around 20,000 BC.

Luckily, this may be about to change - see below.

To understand how Kimberley's rock art fits into developments around the world, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Where is the Kimberley Region?

The Kimberley is the most northern of the nine regions of Western Australia.

Despite its huge size - only a little smaller than California - the region is sparsely populated with a permanent population of less than 35,000.

The region has an ancient aboriginal Stone Age culture which is maintained to this day. The region has over 100 Aboriginal communities, speaking more than 40 different dialects of the Nyulnyulan, Bunuban, Worrorran, and Jarrakan language families. One in three of the population is aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people.

Almost 94 percent of the Kimberley is now recognised as native title lands, belonging to more than 30 aboriginal tribes of the region, each with its own language and many with unique cultural practices.

The Indigenous Protected Area of Wilinggin, for instance, is the traditional lands of the Ngarinyin people, who represent roughly 60 clans who belong to four larger nations: Arawarri Nyawngara, Walinjara Burri, Werangarri Nyuwelngana and Wurlajaru Marrangarna.

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What is the Oldest Art in the Kimberley Region?

The oldest Stone Age rock art in the Kimberley is a life-sized cave painting of a kangaroo on the ceiling of a rock shelter in Drysdale River National Park, painted by ancestors of the Balanggarra people. See: Kangaroo Painting in the Kimberley (15,300 BC).

It was dated, using optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) technology, thanks to the presence of several fossilized wasp nests overlying and underlying the image.

By contrast, the oldest Gwion Gwion paintings date to around 10,000 BC.

But certain cupules, handprints and rock engravings are believed to be much older. Unfortunately, most can't be dated using present dating methods, like radiocarbon dating.

But this situation may be about to change. Research by scientists Helen Green and Damien Finch, undertaken in partnership with the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, may be about to shed light on Kimberley's ancient past.

They have radiocarbon dated a series of calcium oxalate glazes overlying rock surfaces in shallow caves at Drysdale River National Park, with the oldest layer dating to 41,000 BC.

If the research technique can be applied to glazes on some of the many rock engravings in the region, it might reveal the true antiquity of Australia's artistic heritage.

Any prehistoric art in the Kimberley, dating to 41,000 BC, will instantly qualify as Australia's oldest art, easily beating the current record held by the Nawarla Gabarnmang charcoal painting, which was recently carbon-dated to 26,000 BC.

Most experts agree with the view of Oxford Professor Stephen Oppenheimer - expressed in his book "Out of Eden" - that H. sapiens crossed the Timor Sea to get to Australia between 65,000 and 70,000 years ago.

If this is true, modern man would certainly have started creating art by 40,000 BC, if not earlier.

The likelihood of this chronology was given a boost recently by the discovery of the Sulawesi cave paintings (43,500 BC) and the East Kalimantan cave paintings (38,000 BC).

Besides, Neanderthals were making hand stencils in the Spanish Cave of Maltravieso in 64,700 BC, so why wouldn't Aussies do the same?

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Kimberley's Prehistoric Art: Characteristics & Styles

Due to the region's remoteness and size (423,000 sq km) the bulk of its prehistoric art lies undisturbed, and unknown.

Many Gwion Gwion rock paintings, for instance, were purposely created in inaccessible rock shelters scattered across the vast landscape.

No-one knows how many paintings there are and if all of them will ever be found. But even the small percentage of art we do know about consists of a wide variety of types and styles.

It includes archaic cupules, handprints, geometric signs and petroglyphs, as well as a wealth of rock painting.

As far as rock painting is concerned, there are two main traditions in the Kimberley: Gwion paintings (formerly known as "Bradshaws", after Joseph Bradshaw (1854-1916), the first European to encounter them) and Wandjina paintings.

Gwion rock art is significantly older and more widespread, and consists of a series of differing, sometimes overlapping styles.

Here is a brief overview of Kimberley's Paleolithic art. All dates are approximate.

Rock Markings (25,000 BC or earlier)

The earliest art in the Kimberley region consists of ancient rock markings, such as cupules (cup-shaped hollows) often found in large numbers. No one has fathomed the meaning of these cultural marks.

In addition, this era sees the appearance of abstract signs and a variety of rock engravings. This early era, sometimes called the "Cupule, Pit and Groove Period", corresponds roughly to the period of Aurignacian art in Europe (40,000-25,000 BC).

Earliest Rock Painting (After 25,000 BC)

The oldest Kimberley rock paintings are naturalistic, sometimes life-size, pictures of animals, fish, plants and flowers, plus some human forms usually executed in mulberry and red.

Outlines are rendered with long flowing brushwork; heads, tails and limbs are typically filled in with solid colour, while the torso is typically given an irregular infill. Which is why the era is also referred to as the Irregular Infill Animal Period.

In addition, the period also sees the appearance of both positive and negative handprints, as well as finger-flutings. For examples of the latter, see: Koonalda Cave Art (18,000 BC).

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Gwion Gwion Paintings
(from 10,000 BC)

Gwion paintings (also called "Gwion Gwion", "Gyorn Gyorn", "Giro Giro", "Djaeneka djaeneka" or "Kiro kiro") are named after Kimberley's aboriginal culture.

At the Australian Rock Art Association conference in 1998, one of the Ngarinyin Elders, Paddy Nyawarra, stated that "Gwion Gwion" was the name of a group of ancient Kimberley artists.

Gwion is also a reference to the legendary "Gwion Gwion" bird, a long-beaked bird that pecks at rock faces to catch insects. According to legend, this action caused their beaks to bleed, and the resulting blood-flow formed images on the rock.

Gwion paintings are best known for their graceful, long-bodied, human figures, armed with spears, boomerangs, dilly bags and personal ornaments.

Typical colours used, include red, mulberry and very dark colours.

They are rarely found on ceilings. Instead, Gwion painters favour vertical rock surfaces high up in escarpments, in rock shelters with small overhangs that are not suitable for occupation.

Gwion painting evolved over four eras, each associated with a slightly different style. The four styles were: "Tassel figures", "Sash figures", "Elegant Action figures", and "Clothes Peg" or "Straight Part" figures.

Gwion "Tassel" Figures

These slender figures are recognizable by the distinctive tassels hanging from their arms and waists, their arm bands, elbow bands, chest bands, bangles and anklets, and their conical-shaped headdresses and Boomerangs.

One particular motif, the "Triple Tassel", acts as an immediate identifying mark for the idiom.

The Tassel figure is the oldest, most detailed and most widespread of Gwion painting styles. It appeared fully developed completely out of the blue.

No other styles have been discovered underneath a Tassel Bradshaw, indicating it was probably the first of the line.

Gwion "Sash" Figures

Although Sash figures are similar to Tassel figures, they tend to be more robust, with smaller limbs, and a different combination of accessories, plus a diverse range of 'Dunce Cap' headdresses.

Also, elbow bands disappear, while all armbands are replaced by a single variety of "Tuft Armband".

Most importantly, the triple tassel was replaced by a "Three Point Sash", after which the style is named.

Sash artists demonstrate a new skill at depicting the profile shoulder perspective, which leads to an increase of profile views.

Also, the detailed hands of tassel figures are replaced with small circular knobs.

The somewhat static nature of the Tassel figures is replaced with more movement.

Of all the Gwion figures, Sash figures are the most likely to be depicted in some form of ceremony or dance.

Gwion "Elegant Action" Figures

This style is quite different from the Tassel and Sash styles. Elegant Action Figures are typically shown kneeling, running, or hunting with boomerangs and barbed spears.

Also, the style occupies an uncertain position in the Gwion chronology, as they are the only figures that are not superimposed over earlier works, and no other figures are painted over them.

Elegant Action Figures are typically very small in size and rendered in monochrome.

Their standard appearance is fairly basic and undecorated. Males are more common than females.

Men are armed with short multi-barbed spears and boomerangs. They have two types of headdress: a simple 'Dunce Cap' topped with a pompom, or a Watusi headdress.

Given the active hunting lifestyle and lack of accessories of its figures, this style seems to reflect a major change of lifestyle - as if life suddenly got harder.

This idiom also introduces the half-animal, half-human creatures, typically armed with normal human-style weaponry.

In addition, it's also the first to incorporate abstract signs (eg. dashes) to represent movement.

Dashed lines around a wound, either denotes "blood-splatters" or are "action indicators" of the weapon's impact.

Artists also demonstrate a better grasp of naturalism and linear perspective.

Curiously, of all Gwion paintings, Elegant Action Figures have suffered the least vandalism, with most left completely unscathed.

Gwion "Clothes Peg" Figures

Named by Dr Grahame Walsh after their resemblance to wooden clothes pegs, they are also known as "Straight Part Figures".

Typically depicted in a static pose and painted in red, these soldier-like figures can sometimes adopt an aggressive stance - possible fighting over rapidly diminishing resources - and are usually armed with multi-barbed spears.

Variations of this style include: the "Classic figure", the "Stick figure" and the "Tapering Outline figure".

These figures appear in a large number of paintings, which suggests they were the work of either a huge number of painters over a short period, or a smaller number of artists over a much longer time period. Weathering effects appear to indicate the latter.

In total, experts believe there are hundreds of thousands of Gwion paintings in the Kimberley.

Curiously, the Gwion artists disappeared from the archaeological record around 3,500 BC, leaving their beautiful paintings, but hardly another trace of their existence.

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Wandjina Paintings (Since 1,800 BC)

Wandjina paintings (aka Wanjina, or Gulingi) depict rain spirits derived from aboriginal mythology.

The images and the stories behind them are considered sacred by the Mowanjum people, who comprise three language groups in the Kimberley, the Worrorra, Ngarinyin and Wunumbal.

A closely related spirit is the creator-being Wunngurr, which is analogous to the Rainbow Serpent in other aboriginal belief systems.

Wandjina paintings were first documented by the explorer George Grey in his book "Journal of Two Expeditions of Discovery in North West and Western Australia" (1841), based on his travels in the Kimberley during the 1830s.

Wandjina paintings portray the spirit ancestors of modern day aboriginal Australians in anthropomorphic form.

To aboriginal Australians in the Kimberley, the "Wandjina" is the supreme Creator and a symbol of fertility and rainfall.

Wandjina constitutes a continuous tradition which has endured for roughly four millennia.

Wanjina paintings feature halo-like headdresses (depicting differing storms) over mouthless faces that have large round eyes on either side of an oval-shaped nose.

The Wandjina era is sometimes referred to as the Polychrome Art Period.

References

(1) "12,000-Year-old Aboriginal rock art from the Kimberley region, Western Australia." Damien Finch et al. Science Advances. 5 Feb 2020. Vol 6, Issue 6.
(2) "Human occupation of northern Australia by 65,000 years ago." C. Clarkson et al. Nature 547, 306–310 (2017).
(3) "'Exotic Bradshaws' or Australian 'Gwion': an archaeological test." Michael Barry et al. (2004), Australian Aboriginal Studies, 2004 (1): 44.
(4) "Lost World of the Kimberley: Extraordinary New Glimpses of Australia's Ice Age Ancestors." Joseph Bradshaw. (2010). Allen & Unwin.

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