Aboriginal Rock Painting

Whether in Arnhem Land, Cape York, the Kimberleys or the centre, entering a gallery of rock paintings is an awe-inspiring experience. Walls are covered in layer upon layer of designs and at first the effect is chaotic, a mass of colour, texture and shapes. Perhaps a few images stand out: a barramundi here, a human figure there. then the eye begins a process of adaptation and recognition and hundreds of animals, tracks and figures emerge from the faded outlines, filling the cave with imagery and the presence of the people who painted these works over thousands of years. Sometimes they chose the ceiling of a rock shelter and at some magnificent sites the paintings float above the viewer, taking the eye on a voyage across the cave ceiling and out into the wide valley below. Superlatives seem unnecessary. The paintings speak on behalf of their creators; for them they were the visual language of centuries of tradition and belief.

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Then, as the daylight changes, the interplay of images is altered; early morning light brings the colours alive in a warm yellow glow. At midday the art is flatter. Fewer shapes are clearly discernible, the recent bright paintings overshadowing the old faded red ones beneath them. At the the end of the day the older paintings, perhaps ancient Mimi spirit figures, reappear, their linear, athletic red bodies showing clearly against wall surfaces blackened by the smoke of many campfires. It is difficult to convey the impact of these great art works. Their presence is sometimes intangible as the natural environment and light play a major role in the effect they create.


The Aboriginals, sites chosen for rock art galleries and for individual paintings on rock are always important in their own right, whether as camping places or, more commonly, as places of mythological significance to the artists. The natural geological formation, therefore, is fundamental to the works of art as whole entities. Although we can examine and appreciate single figures, marvel at the dexterity in execution of some of the more elegant Mimis and appreciate the use of colour and naturalistic positioning of animals such as kangaroos, brolgas and snakes, we can experience much more in situ than on the printed page of even in film. The artists have expressed their entire totemic and religious beliefs on these caves over many generations. Some paintings are so old that they do not relate to the living memory of any Aboriginal group, and thus are often claimed to be the work of spirits. But they are there for us to see and to appreciate. The paintings in Kakadu National Park are of such international significance that the area has been declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO, and the Australian government has agreed to protect them from destruction.

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Here is a contemporary dilemma. If the magnificent heritage of Australian Aboriginal rock painting is extolled and if the necessity for viewing them in situ is stressed, many more visitors will go to the remote areas where they are. The paintings are, however, extremely vulnerable, not only to natural ageing and fading, to insect attack, to animal damage and to water and wind erosion, but also to vandalism by visitors. Despite educational programs designed to make people aware that Aboriginal art and culture are part of the Australian heritage of which we should be immensely proud, vandalism remains a significant problem, not jut in Australia, but also at cultural sites throughout the world where tourists or holidaymakers are permitted unsupervised access. Most government bodies concerned with the protection of these galleries have therefore devised controls on visitors and have consciously chosen to open only a few galleries where an Aboriginal ranger can be in attendance.


Rock paintings were made for different reasons, depending on the nature of the site. Once every significant feature in Australia had a specific Aboriginal name, including the rocks on which paintings were made. This terminology has been recorded only in the areas where traditional people have retained their language and their traditional associations. In western Arnhem Land, for example, each site belonged to a particular group which had the responsibility of safeguarding it, retouching important paintings and conducting ceremonies. Many paintings had religious significance; they wee the painted images of ancestral heroes who 'put themselves on rock' at some time during the creation era, where they are resting still. Traditional names reflected the mythological or economic importance of each site and related to the paintings at art sites. The image of Namarrkon, the lightning spirit, is painted in a cave that bears his name. Similarly, the painting of a snake appears at a site near Oenpelli regarded as the home of the snake itself. At this site procreation ceremonies were carried out to ensure a plentiful supply of snakes for food. 

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Red ochre painting of the woman super imposed over other images.
Laura, Queensland

Many of these paintings have survived to be part of the living culture of Aboriginal people. This has necessitated frequent retouching, as probably happened throughout the continent. Aboriginal elders from as far apart as the Kimberleys, the Alligator river region and central Australia have all affirmed that it was the duty of certain people to refurbish the sacred paintings and to make the spirits 'fresh'. In so doing the artists restored the powerful presence of the ancestor at the site, they pleased him and encouraged him to fulfill his duty, to ensure a plentiful supply of food and animals or to bring rain. Most writers have clearly stated that it was the act of painting itself which was important, not the finished product. But the painted images of spirits are real and powerful, and, to judge from recorded comments made by older men visiting them, the freshness of paint and the strength of facial expression are important. One sacred site is known as Dadbe, the name of the Rainbow Snake. When a survey team asked two men to accompany them to the place, thee was much hesitation: this was the home of the Rainbow Snake and it had not been visited because it lay outside their country. They agreed to help in the survey, but would only go to some areas, not others. when the paintings were reached, the men were fearful and perspiring heavily.

The giant Wandjina Rowalumbin painted on a rock site at
Napier, Northwestern Australia.

The walls held beautiful images of x-ray fish, human figures and a crocodile. One image stood out, that of a doubled-up snake with a kangaroo head. One of the men refused to enter the area; the other addressed the paintings, calling out, 'I am speaking, I am talking to you, my ancestor, I have asked them. I am seeing the paintings. They are waiting for me. Maybe you are dead. I have grown up. He was possibly worried about seeking permission to come to the area and afraid the ancestral snake would not recognise him. He was quite definite that the paintings had not been done by humans, but by Jingana the Rainbow. The site is close to a sacred waterhole, the permanent home of the Rainbow Snake, and it must not be visited by anyone. the mythological importance of this area has therefore continued beyond living memory.

Paintings that were not major creation ancestors served other functions. They might have been lesser spirits, evil or benign, or they might have involved aspects of magic or sorcery practices. Also, many shelters were once used as camping places, usually galleries where hunting scenes and animals predominate. However, the major sites were seldom used for domestic purposes. In 1911, the anthropologist Baldwin Spencer observed the Kakadu people walk up Inyalak hill near the billabong in the evening. The Kakadu people had their main camp at Oenpelli, but slept at night above mosquito leveling the rock shelters. The Gunwinggu people gradually displaced the Kakadu; they do not paint at Inyaluk, nor do they know who did the paintings. Spencer, who obtained bark paintings from the Kakadu that are replicas of the rock paintings, was sure the Kakadu were the artists. However, Charles Mountford, who came to the area in 1948, was unsure of this, while other anthropologists have suggested that they were done by a tribe in the area before the Kakadu. It is clear that there has been a succession of different tribal groups occupying the area where the paintings occur and that the layers of paintings in different styles reflect these changes.

Since the initial discoveries, new paintings have been made by Gunwinggu artists who occupy the area. bobby Ngainmira, a Gunwinggu bark artist resident at Oenpelli, has claimed that some small paintings on isolated parts of Inyaluk hill are his own work, and other sites have been painted by Gunwinggu in the 1960s. Spencer was an early enthusiast for the art, particularly for the way in which the painted animals conveyed the poise and distinctive body movements. He wrote, 'No artist could have expressed better the relative proportions of the body and limbs, the small head, neck and forepaws, the narrow throat swelling out of the large trunk ... the really wonderful way in which the savage artist has depicted the pose which is always assumed by the animal when alarmed, the erect position of the body, the head thrown well up and slightly back, and the two little forepaws held forward helplessly.

Domestic shelters frequently show these animals being caught or speared; the artists were practising a form of hunting magic. Before a hunt, a man might paint a kangaroo he had seen or hoped to see; he would draw it speared through and by singing or chanting would summon it to him. In this way he hoped to ensure that his spears would find their mark. The same magical purpose may be behind paintings of turtles, fish and birds, although the actual spearing may not be depicted. Others have suggested that, as Aboriginal artists once painted simple hunting scenes on the smooth inside faces of the bark walls of family shelters, they might also have simply enjoyed giving visual expression to their mental preoccupations; to the animals, birds and fish they caught and ate, to the totem animals of their clans, which were sacred, to all manner of spirits that inhabited the bush and to the creation ancestors themselves and their great Dreaming sites.

Paintings of oddly shaped human figures with animal heads, strange limbs or non-human features are frequently depictions of spirits and they are found throughout Australia. Examples in the north include the Mimi and namarrkain of Arnhem Land, the Quinkans of Cape York and an enormous range of other less known individual figures, such as Nabarakbia on Obiri Rock. He is depicted with a catch of fish and is said to steal the spirits of sick people and eat them. If someone was sick, the medicine man or traditional doctor would be sent to the painting to chase Nabarakbia away.

The ability to perform love magic or sorcery was an accomplishment of Aboriginal artists, and painting images on rock was frequently an adjunct to these practices. In the case of sorcery, the intention of the artist was usually to cause an accident, punishment or even the death of a victim. From the paintings it would seem that the intended victims were frequently women, either wives who had been unfaithful or others who had spurned the attention of a would-be lover. direct and public punishment was a form of retribution exacted by aggrieved husbands or by the wife's brothers if the woman had been hurt or humiliated. However, if this did not suffice or if the grounds for this action did not exist, sorcery could be used. It is still widely practised in traditional communities, though its rituals have always been secret. Sorcery images frequently showed white figures in supine positions with stingray barbs protruding from their bodies. Stingray barbs are poisonous and multiple stings are excruciatingly painful. Berndt described the use of sorcery paintings to force an unwilling woman to comply with a man when he wrote, 'One drawing represents a woman with a reptile's head and two babies suckling at her breasts. Semen is flowing from her vagina and stingray nails are sticking into her body from every direction. After the woman's name is called, her whole body begins to hurt and soon she dies.'

In Cape York where thee are many examples of sorcery painting, the figure is inverted and painted in white ochre with an odd number of limbs, perhaps one or three. In the southern areas of New South Wales the meaning of the art and intentions of the artist cannot be established as clearly. However, since the practice of sorcery was well known and since the only recorded evidence of purpose of rock engravings linked them to the 'clever' men or sorcerers, one can guess that some paintings were used in magic. Love magic is the term generally used when the intention of the artist is not directed at harming the woman. These images may show a woman and man in coitus or a woman alone in a sexually explicit position. A man may paint and 'sing' a woman to him in this way. If he wishes to keep her affections, he must maintain the painting by retouching it. Painting a woman with a foetus or breast feeding babies was another way in which suggestive magic was employed in an attempt to cause pregnancy.


The techniques used in cave paintings done early this century and observed by ethnographers have included drawing with dry pebbles, dots of pigment, using the hand to rub large areas of ochre over the rock surface, splattering paint around an object (such as a weapon or a human hand) pressed against the rock surface, finger painting and the most common technique, brush painting. Two rock artists observed by the ethnographer Brandl used different methods of making the paintings. One man, Jackie Bunggarnial, made a brush from a chewed twig. He then chewed white clay and mixed this with water in his mouth, keeping it there while he painted his design. He outlined the motif first and then filled it in. The other artist, Mandarg, painted the outline of the Rainbow Snake with a broad brush and then covered the inside of the snake by spreading the pigment with his hands. He then sprayed dots onto the surface of the serpent by mixing ochre and water in his mouth.

A number of different brushes can be used to paint on rock. Strips of bark, chewed twigs and human hair are all employed, depending whether a delicate line or a large area of colour is required. since early Australian artists first painted on rock, the passage of time has altered the original colours. Bright red ochre has altered in many areas to black or even white, and most designs, particularly of the early Bradshaw figures and Mimi figures, once painted in bright red ochre, have now darkened to deep purple or black. Most of these changes are due to chemical interaction with the rock surface. Red ochre remains the most permanent pigment of all, permeating the rock surface in many places. Other pigments, such as yellow, white or pink, are less permanent and new paintings are subject to flaking, chipping and being washed off by water or rubbed off by animals and insects. The pigments are obtained from numerous different natural sources. Black may come from charcoal or manganese, white from pipeclay, gypsum or burnt selenite. Yellow may come from yellow limonite, red from iron oxide, laterites or burnt yellow ochre.

The same basic colours - red, yellow, black and white - are used throughout the continent. Red is the most significant colour, mythologically and ritually, though in some places other colours may predominate. For example, in the Sydney-Hawkesbury area there are many white paintings and it would seem that the strong reds and yellows are less frequently available. blue is rarely seen but is recorded in some galleries in the Kimberleys and south to Ayers Rock.

When painting on bark, Aboriginal artists used a range of traditional fixatives, including gurg, a resin obtained from a bush, and wild orchid sap. the only fixative known to be used by the artists who painted on rock is human blood, most commonly mixed with red ochre or even used in place of it. The suitability of the colours is judged by their purity and texture. White clay containing any small particles of iron oxide or sand would certainly not be considered as good as the pure white (called delek) found near gudjanagal, close to Maningrida.

When one looks at the range of colours in paintings on a large gallery in western Arnhem Land, it is obvious that the artists used most of the colours at their disposal. these were either available locally or were traded over long distances, and the artists might also have mixed colours. Brandl mentions that Spider Murulumi occasionally added white to red to achieve a paler shade with greater intensity of colour; Spider said he was 'making it stronger'. Colours also age significantly over time, and might have once been different. When Brandl located what seemed to be some greenish paintings in the x-ray style at one site in the deaf Adder Creek area, he found a small deposit of a green mineral called serpentine nearby. although he had imagined that this might be the source of the paint used in the designs, upon analysis it was evident that the paintings had been charcoal and that the green discoloration was the effect of mildew on the binding agent used by the artist. Reds fade and grow dull and browns change colour over the years. These changes, plus the tendency of the artists to occasionally mix pigments, are the most obvious reasons for the range of pigments and hues that are to be found in these galleries.


Many rock paintings across the continent fit loosely into the same categories as rock engravings, although the magnificent galleries in Arnhem Land require separate and detailed analysis. Broadly, paintings throughout most of the continent fall into non-figurative (symbols and tracks), simple figurative (outlines and solid figures without embellishment or further decoration, including both humans and animals and recognisable objects) and complex figurative. In the Sydney area, for example, where thee are large flat areas of rock available for engravings as well as adjacent caves in which paintings were executed, the paintings and engravings are very similar in style; the designs, scale and style of presentation closely relate to each other. It has therefore been suggested that engraving and painting could have been done together.

Stencils are the simplest cave paintings and the most widely distributed. They appear to have been made throughout the continent for many centuries until recently. They were painted by holding an object against the wall so that a negative impression of its shape would remain when paint was sprayed around it. The reverse image could be obtained by dipping an object, such as a hand, into ochre, or covering the hand with ochre and pressing it against the rock surface.

Stencils are found all over Australia in association with every group of cave paintings and drawings. Hands are most commonly seen, but other parts of the body were stencilled, including whole arms and feet and, in one case, a complete body. In some areas it is common to find stencilled boomerangs and other small objects such as lizards and parts of plants. In Queensland's Carnarvons there is a painting of an implement known as a kidney smasher. this was made of wood with a hook-like curve; the aggressor hit his victim in the kidneys with it. At Kenniff cave, a spectacular array of stencils has been found, which includes 125 red, 13 yellow, 11 white and 6 black hands, as well as 8 handprints of children. There are positive and negative stencils, and stencils of hafted axes, boomerangs and other weapons. At another site in this area, named the tombs, presumably because of its geological formation, a unique stencil of a complete human figure has been found. The Tombs is a cave over ten metres long, almost five metres wide, thirty to ninety centimetres high and with a sand floor thirty to sixty centimetres deep. It is in the base of a sandstone cliff. along over 30 metres of the shelter wall stretches a frieze of ochred stencils from ground level to about 182 centrimetres high. The human figure, stencilled in red ochre with outstretched arms, stands at the cave entrance; perhaps he is the guardian keeper of the sacred cave.

Stencilled hands are found extensively in galleries in the Hawkesbury region of New south Wales, in central Australia, Western Australia and Arnhem Land. In the 1960s an old man of the Kimberley area said that Aboriginal people put the images of their hands on caves as a sign that they owned the territory or belonged to that place. This ownership symbol varied; it could be crooked fingers or, at Deaf Adder Gorge, the thumb and little finger had been spread but the three middle fingers were kept together to form a point. Yirawala, one of the most significant of Gunwinggu painters, travelled back to western Arnhem Land in the early 1970s in an attempt to stop mining of his tribal lands. In a film made at the time, he spoke of a cave to which he was taken as a young man and where he was shown the hand stencils of his people. On this expedition, Yirawala found the cave in which the hand stencils had been made and those symbols convinced him that it was the cave his father had shown him.

Non-figurative paintings are found in areas closely paralleling the distribution of Panaramitee-style rock engravings. They are therefore most commonly found in the arid regions of the continent from Western Australia, through central Australia, south Australia, western New south Wales and Queensland. Designs include abstract symbols such as circles, arcs, barred lines and more complex meanders and grids. Similarities between the engravings and the paintings can be seen by comparing designs found at Trephina gorge in the Northern Territory with those at N'Dhala Gorge. The rock paintings of New south Wales, particularly those at cobar, fall into the simple figurative category. These generally consist of small simple human figures in white and red. These are similar in style to the vast expanse of paintings at Laura in the Cape York region. although at first glance the Laura paintings are stunning in comparison to the New south Wales examples, the Laura ones featuring imaginative figures and compositions and layer upon layer of beautiful paintings, in execution they are essentially the same. that is, they are simple outlines filled in with one colour. They thus contrast with the more complex and elaborate polychrome paintings of Arnhem Land and the Kimberley area.

The complex figurative style is best shown in the famous x-ray paintings of Arnhem Land and the Wandjina paintings of the Kimberley area. In these, the outlines of the figures are filled in with various patterns. The older monochrome Mimi figures of Arnhem Land and the Bradshaw figures in the Kimberley can be included in this class. These display complexity in their depiction of musculature and movement. they also portray complex headdresses, weapons and decorative apparel such as bags, armbands and belts.

The art of the centre is found scattered on widely distant rock outcrops, including Ayers Rock and the Olgas and sites in the Musgrave, Mann and Tomkinson Ranges. Generally it includes a large proportion of non-figurative symbols, wandering and straight lines, animal and bird tracks. side by side are images of human figures and of simple painted animals, including snakes and other recognisable creatures. At Uluru, or Ayers rock, the paintings are one aspect of the immense significance of the great desert for for the Pitjantjatjara and related peoples. the whole complex illustrates the mythology of the Kunia, or carpet snake ancestors, the Liru, the poisonous snake ancestors and Wanambi, the great serpent. Each feature of the rock, its surrounding outcrops and the stands of trees and waterholes, are the metamorphosed remains of the battles that took place between the ancestors in the tjugurpa or creation era. Near the spot where people generally start climbing Uluru, the rock is pitted with round holes. these are the results of the Liru spears. In another place, the lizard ancestors were camped, eating an emu they had killed. Another group of hunters who had been chasing the emu approached and asked for some of th4e meat, but the lizard men refused hospitality and hid the emu away. The other hunters left but returned to set fire to the lizard men. On the rock at this campsite, the lichen is said to be the burned bodies of the lizard men. The emu's leg metamorphosed into a natural feature of the rock. At the base of the rock, below the campsite at which the lizard ancestors were killed, is a large sleeping lizard rock, now a site for the lizard and an important food resource. the great serpent Wanambi is related to water and now lives in the area known as Maggie Springs. If the waterhole is dry, Wanambi can be called upon to bring rain. After rain he rises into the sky as a rainbow.

The painting at the twelve Ayers rock sites are all related to mythology, and many of Pitjantjatjara origin are part of initiation rituals. They were used to instruct young initiates in the moral law drawn from the creation events at the rock. The paintings are in the simple figurative style, combining abstract symbols and figurative elements, including circles, concentric circles, arcs, grids and meandering patterns. they also include animal and bird tracks, snakes, dingoes and human figures. Many abstract symbols represent the ancestors in a sacred form or sacred poles, waningas and body designs worn or carried during initiation ceremonies. the exact age of the paintings is unknown but they are evidently deteriorating quickly. The galleries at Ayers rock are variable in size. Most are relatively small with several very large exceptions, one being thirty metres in length with emu tracks over a metre high.

The principal mythology of Katatjuta (the Olgas) concerns the Pungalung ancestors. In the creation the Mingarri or mice women camped at the Olgas. Pungalung, a giant man and a women chaser, was hunting in the vicinity with Mudjura his companion, the red lizard of the sandhills. The two men came into the women's camp where Pungalung made advances to them. when he found they wee all virgins he raped them. Changing into dingoes, the women chased Pungalung from the camp and Pungalung used Mudjura as a shield against the women's assault. After a while, Mudjura tired of this and leapt from his back, changing into a tor. Using a heavy boomerang, Pingalung defended himself from the dingoes' attack. He knocked out their teeth, which can now been as the shining quartz rocks in the area. Pungalung and the Mingarri women also became tors. The paintings at the Olgas are sacred representations of the Pungalung story. Dingo tracks are common in the designs, although the precise significance of the paintings has not been revealed.

The mythology at Katatjuta and Uluru includes many minor characters. For example, at Katatjuta, Wanambi, the corkwood sisters, mice women, curlew man, kangaroo, dingoes and possums all have stories. At Uluru there is a similar list of ancestors whose activities are remembered, including hare-wallabies, dingoes, the marsupial mole, the sand lizard, the blue-tongued lizard and the snake.

Paintings are found in western New south Wales and in the Sydney coastal region. those of the west occur in the Cobar pediplain, Mt Gundabooka and Mt Grenfell being major sites in low, hilly ranges. More than forty rock shelters display galleries of small stick figures from ten to forty-five centimetres in height, which have been painted in groups, all in the one colour, predominantly white or red and occasionally yellow. Many are shown holding weapons, including boomerangs and stone axes. The art of one period is superimposed over another. Apart from white human figures, mazes and tracks, emus and kangaroos can be seen. At Gundabooka a large white maze is painted beside a small fish silhoutette. The maze may represent the stone fish traps once made in river estuaries, one of which survives at Brewarrina, New South Wales. White is the most commonly used pigment on the newer paintings, whereas red ochre has survived best on those which have been superimposed. White was obtained from pipeclay in creek deposits and red was ground from ironstone in formations known locally as 'bombs'.

On the Cobar pediplain the red ochre was called kubbur by the Wongaibon tribe. It came from a cave that was a mythological camping place of the ancestral spirit Biame. The site is now occupied by the town of Cobar (derived from the word kubbur).

Many of the paintings at Mt Grenfell, Wuttagoona and other sites in the central west of New south Wales depict hunting scenes. the evidence of the paintings accords with ethnographic reports of hunting methods which were still being used in the nineteenth century. Small groups or families hunted over a restricted area of country and figures are shown in the paintings, surrounding, holding or chasing animals into nets. The main prey are kangaroos and emus, although other animals such as koalas, bids, fish, snakes and lizards, tortoises and frogs also appear. It is likely that the practice of painting such scenes was part of widespread magic to ensure successful hunting. Along the Darling river, Ngemba tribesmen chanted 'spells', and songs and other incantations were used over nets. Many of the paintings show a figure in profile sitting or standing and singing with clapsticks. This is probably the sorcerer or magician, also known as the 'clever man' who can perform magic. Such figures are also shown touching the hunters or the nets. further evidence of the paintings' magical qualities was the finding of quartz crystals in an archaeological excavation at a Mt Grenfell painting site. Quartz crystals were prized and only used by Aboriginal 'clever men' in magic. In the alps straddling the New south Wales-Victoria border, similar simple figurative paintings have been found, though in smaller numbers than in the Cobar or Sydney regions. The alps were inhabited only during the warmer summer months, and it is therefore to be expected that thee would have been fewer art sites. These painting sites have only recently been discovered, but they confirm the consistent, occurrence of the simple figurative style in the south-east of the continent. In Victoria only a few cave art sites have been found; in style the art resembles that of New south Wales. The sites include caves of hand stencils, a bichrome painting of an ancestral being that could be Bunjil, an important spirit, and other scenes with human figures.

The study and photographic recording of rock painting galleries in Queensland may not be complete for some years. Further discoveries are unlikely to change the primary importance of the area around Cooktown and Laura in south-east Cape York, where numerous impressive galleries rival those of western Arnhem Land in colour, imagery and impact. This region has one of the largest bodies of prehistoric rock art in the world, including paintings, stencils and engravings. although the existence of some galleries has been known since early European travellers first reported them in the late nineteenth century, most of the sites were discovered in the last twenty years by pilot and artist Percy Trezise. When flying domestic routes, Trezise would frequently fly low into the valleys to gaze along the escarpments, searching for a flash of colour that signified a painting site. Back on the ground, h followed up his sightings on foot. Later he bought his own plane and continued his quest to document all the sites of the area. 

Paintings in the Laura-Cooktown area are distinct from those of other areas. figurative motifs comprise eighty-four per cent of the images, which include colourful paintings of humans, animals, fish, birds and reptiles, intermingled with stencils of hands, feet, boomerangs and adzes that often appear to have been deliberately superimposed over particular images rather than scattered at random. The most distinctive figures are human-shaped images of spirits with various names but most frequently termed Quinkans. These wear a variety of headdresses and often have some non-human features with distortions of body, limbs, head or genitals. One important gallery is thought by Trezise to have been an initiation cave. this Quinkan gallery is probably a very old sacred cave. Large male figures are shown with rayed headdresses; other figures depict dingoes, kangaroos and emus. Most of the men have one leg raised, suggesting the dingo dance in which dancers mime lifting one leg to urinate. Aboriginal people living locally suggested to Trezsise that this could have been the cave in which boys of dingo or wallaby totems were initiate. There are twelve small red hand stencils, perhaps of young boys. The most dramatic feature is the relationship of the large 'open' Quinkan cave to another in the same rock outcrop. A smaller cave nearby contains several dark red older figures of Quinkans that have no images superimposed on them. the figures stretch from the ground onto the ceiling above the with their hands above their heads, staring down at the viewer. This cave has a small, low tunnel leading to it and connecting it to the other site and this probably had a significant function during ceremonies.

All the Laura-Cooktown paintings fit broadly into the simple figurative classification. Few show any body mobility and most are simple outlines filled with colour. Sorcery paintings are frequently found, and the notable giant horse gallery may well fit this category if the intentions of the artist could be gauged. Death sorcery paintings usually depict a man or woman lying down or inverted. they are often white. Known throughout Cape York as puri-puri, sorcery survives still.

The giant horse gallery has an extraordinary series of images that obviously post-date European settlement, or at least record the first sightings of explorers with horse. thee are three shelters in which large horses appear, dwarfing and superimposing on other images. In one shelter about 18 metres long, a white and yellow horse 3.35 metres long by 1.83 metres high is shown with red reins extending forward over the head to the hand of a red horizontal image of a man who appears to have been thrown from the horse. A pig is also shown. Pigs were first released in Cape York in 1770 by Captain Cook, who hoped they would multiply to provide food for shipwrecked sailors. The pigs thrived and were incorporated into local Aboriginal legends as 'little hairy men'. Trezise suggests that the horses were painted after a man named William Hann and his party passed about three kilometres below the gallery in 1872. Mann recorded that he had 'had occasion to disperse the natives' by firing at them with rifles. The sight of the giant animal and the attack must have had a profound effect on the Aboriginal people. In another shelter, Trezise and two elderly Aboriginal men found an old, worn horseshoe, as well as a painting that the men said depicted a hafted axe with a horseshoe head. Horses were later killed and eaten by Aboriginals and their horseshoes prized for weapon manufacture.

Rock paintings in other areas of Queensland differ from the Laura examples. Around Princess Charlotte Bay approximately 120 kilometres north of Laura, the figures are mostly less than 30 centimetres long and the colours more restricted. The paintings depict coastal marine creatures: turtles, dugong, fish, sea slugs, crayfish and human figures. South of Laura the painting becomes less figurative; around Townsville it is geometric and non-figurative. In the central highlands, notably around Carnarvon, the art consists almost exclusively of stencils and abraded or painted geometric patterns. The stencilled art of Carnarvon is most impressive, with huge caves and cliffs forming stencilled frescos up to 137 metres long.  

To the west at Mt Isa, the art is predominantly engravings, but it also includes two notable paintings sites that are very different in style: Malbon in the bed of the Cloncurry River and Sun Rock at Charley Creek. The Malbon rock painting is unique in Queensland; in style it resembles some of the cave paintings of the central desert regions, If one walks along the usually dry Cloncurry River, the site looms as a massive quartzite outcrop with vertical sides rising twenty metres from the river bed. The main panel has a base colour of yellow pigment, onto which a red ochre design has been painted. the design is composed of thick red U shapes, parallel short strokes and other non-representational shapes that together form one complete painting. comparison with the desert paintings such as those at Emily Gap near Alice Springs lead to the conclusion that this was probably a totemic centre and that the painting represents the symbolic journeys of spirit ancestors to this site. The most intriguing aspect of the continual ravage of flood. Debris deposited by the river in flood can be found up to two metres above the paintings, yet the paintings are excellently preserved.

At Sun rock the paintings are mainly red ochre figures on a rock face adjacent to water. As at Malbon, the fine ochre has penetrated into the minute cracks of the quartzite surface and a 'bonding' has developed that should permit the paintings to survive. Over thirteen human figures with elongated penises are depicted, some wearing headdresses as though for ceremony. A snakelike pattern suggests that they are associated with Rainbow Snake mythology.

The giant staring faces of the north-west known as the Wandjina have fascinated people interested in Aboriginal rock art for 150 years, ever since the paintings were first discovered by Sir Geoge Grey in 1837. He commented, '... they appeared to stand out from the rock; and I was certainly rather surprised at the moment that I first saw this gigantic head and upper part of a body bending over and staring down at me'. Looking at a group of Wandjina figures he wrote, 'I imagine them to represent females ... each had a very remarkable headdress coloured with a deep bright blue, and one had a necklace on ... Each of the four faces was marked by a totally distinct expression of countenance, and although none of them had mouths, two, I thought, were otherwise good looking'. For some time, the popular view was that the Wandjina had been painted by foreign visitors to Australia, possibly shipwrecked sailors from Borneo or Indonesia. Recently, some made the exaggerated claim that they depicted visitors from outer space.

The Wandjina are actually extremely important creation ancestors of the Kimberley people, and these images on rocks represent them in places where they changed their physical form and became spirits, leaving their imprint on the rock. The Wandjina travelled across the country, creating plants, animals and the landscape. The increased spirits of babies, animals and plants and created thunder and lightning in the wet season. The mythology of the Wandjina is closely linked with that of the Rainbow Serpent and several sites include paintings of both. Associated legends tell how they met and interacted in the creation era. If the Wandjina are angry, it is believed that they will call up lightning and strike the offender dead, or send rain to flood the land and drown the people. Aboriginal informants recount how the repositories of the spirits of children are kept by the Wandjina in waterholes, particularly freshwater pools. When a woman eats fish, turtles or crocodiles from the pool, she may simultaneously become pregnant with the child spirit. The importance of the Wandjina to Aboriginal traditional owners is immense. They are the original ancestral spirits and their images, until very recent times, were faithfully retouched and kept fresh to ensure the continual reproduction of species and renewal of life.

The paintings are startling in impact largely because of the scale of the faces and the way in which a white background has been used. Large areas of the rock on which they appear have been filled with thick white pigment, providing a clear and stark backdrop for bright yellow, red and black ochres. Large-scale paintings of complete human figures are found, as are those showing head and shoulders only and images of faces or groups of faces by themselves. The dense white background has been painted first and the outline of the ancestral heroes delineated in red. The effect is somewhat like a halo, making the faces shimmer in the heat. The eyes and nose are joined and generally painted in black, frequently with a circle of spoke-like eyelashes, and the mouth is never painted. A range of decorative features appears around the head, including radiating headdresses. Occasionally the body is decorated with stripes and a solid black oval is sometimes painted in the middle of the chest; this obviously had some ceremonial significance. The shape of the body and limbs, when compared to the scale of most other rock paintings, is massive. In many of the caves other images appear, including kangaroos, wallabies, echidnas, goannas, crocodiles, birds and a wide range of plants.

In the same area as the Wandjina paintings are other ancient red ochre figures known as Bradshaw figures. they have been compared to the Mimi paintings of Arnhem land and were obviously done much earlier than the Wandjina, for the latter overlie the Bradshaw images where they appear together and some have lost clarity of outline. The elegance and form of the Bradshaw figures remain distinctive, however, and they provide tantalising glimpses of the Kimberley culture of the past. many are faded as a result of extreme ageing. Although contemporary Aboriginal artists retouch the great Wandjina and custodians of the various sites are responsible for maintaining their aura, they do not admit to being the original artists of these or the Bradshaw figures. all the art of the Kimberley region was thought to have been done by spirits.  

Western Arnhem Land houses the most magnificent galleries of all. In recognition of the extent of the art and its importance in human history, the Kakadu National park was proclaimed a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1981. Numerous galleries extend along the escarpment areas throughout the Alligator Rivers region and towards the Liverpool River. The paintings are in many styles, superimposed in layers. The earlier red ochre figures have been loosely grouped together and are known as Mimi, whilst the more recent polychrome figures and animals that show internal anatomical features have been called x-ray art. These two major categories of painting differ in style, subject matter and technique. Mimi art is the older of the two, and Aboriginal informants have indicated they believe the paintings wee put on rock by the Mimi spirits themselves; they were not done by human hands. Mythology concerning the spirits is an important part of the contemporary Gunwinggu belief. The Mimi are small, delicate spirits who live in the rock crevices of the escarpment area in western Arnhem Land. They are so light and fragile that it is thought a strong wind can blow them around. They are nocturnal and generally regarded as benevolent, though children are often told not to wander too far from the camp at night or the Mimi might steal them. Mimi as subject matter in paintings show them with a variety of weapons. Some stories tell of how they transgress tribal laws, and their deeds are subject of numerous cautionary tales. 

Mimi figures are generally small, always painted in red ochre. they are predominantly human figures, though animals and plant forms also occur, as well as elaborate hunting scenes. X-ray artists, on the other hand, used a range of colours with much more emphasis on animals and fish, as well as large figures. These feature elaborate internal decoration, including the depiction of the animals' known physical features such as the backbone, gut and intestines. Mimi paintings frequently appear in groups, composed as scenes with interrelated parts such as a group of figures spearing or fighting or another group hunting or making love. X-ray art tends to consist of separate, juxtaposed images, often superimposed over others of similar style. (One notable exception to this is the group of x-ray figures that appears at Nourlangie Rock, Kakadu National Park.)

The x-ray style is a descriptive term applied to all Arnhem Land paintings in which some internal anatomy is shown. Intestines, heart, liver, lungs and skeletal form appear in animals, while human figures show only vertebrae but are decorated in geometric patterns. Both animal and human figures are subdivided, each section being treated with pattern and colour. Figures may be outlined on a white background or they may be outlined in red and filled in with white. An extensive palette is obtained using natural ochres, as well as by juxtaposing these to form changes in optical colour effects. Cross-hatched fine lines occur in several images. the x-ray paintings have continued from about 9000 years ago to the present. However, because of the common practice of painting these over  a background of white ochre which is very unstable, they are at great risk of disintegration. In many galleries these relatively recent painting these over a background of white ochre which is very unstable, they are at gr4eat risk disintegration. In many galleries these relatively recent paintings have worn off the walls, to reveal the much older dark red paintings beneath.

X-ray paintings also show more contemporary subjects such as ships, horses, rifles and pipes, indicating that the art continued up to the present and postdates contact with other cultures. Some galleries show that the people were recording events in their daily lives, including the coming of white men and the visits by ships to Arnhem land. Mimi paintings are animated and agile, showing a great deal of musculature and flexibility. Weapons are depicted, including barbed and multipronged spears and returning boomerangs. Some weapons shown in Mimi paintings are not known or used by Aboriginal people in 'Arnhem Land, so examination of the subject matter may therefore provide an interesting social history of the area unobtainable from oral records.

A study by George Chaloupka of the subject matter in rock paintings of the Kakadu National park has already significantly added to our knowledge of the ways in which Aboriginals adapted to immense climatic changes over the centuries. During the late Pleistocene era, from 20,000 to 9000 years ago, major changes in sea levels occurred along the Arnhem Land coast, flooding the alligator Rivers and subsequently producing tidal flats, salt pans and later freshwater wetlands. Saltwater animals gave way to freshwater species, and the eating habits as well as the social and cultural practices of Aboriginal people changed. Adopting the approach of an art historian, Chaloupka also assessed the objects depicted in context, whether they were under or over others and what subjects predominated in each sequence. The sequences Chaloupka found were the pre-estuarine (most are known as Mimi art), estuarine, freshwater and contact. The pre-estuarine period covers the time span from yup to 20,000 years ago to 7000 years ago, and includes the art styles and subjects painted before the development of the freshwater river systems. This category includes stencilled objects, large naturalistic animals and figures, numerous agile dynamic figures and yam images in  many forms. The large naturalistic figures may be stippled or filled in with other lines; they mostly represent species of kangaroo and wallaby, many of which are extinct. Extinct animals identified include the thylacine, Tasmanian devil, numbat and long-beaked echidna (which has been extinct in Australia for 18,000 years). Human figures are grouped according to certain characteristics: the degree to which they exhibit great elegance, animation, the wearing of headdresses, hair belts and skirts and types of weapons being used. the human form changed from relative naturalism through stylisation to further elucidation into linear stick figures. The presence of boomerangs can also indicate time phases in the art.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this new analysis is that it postulates a connection between the ancient cultures of Australia and New guinea. The evidence for this is partly logic, since the land masses were once joined, and partly the presence of the numerous different yam images in the earliest phase of pre-estuarine Kakadu art. Many faded red paintings of yams appear with partly human, partly animal features. Aboriginals identify the yams as mankinjdjek (water yam) or karrbada (long yam). The yams are shown as bumpy tubers with plant tendrils or vines, and many have human characteristics. Yams are transposed over other animals, including flying foxes, and thy occur frequently with images of the Rainbow Serpent. The occurrence of the Rainbow Serpent for the first time in this 'yam phase' of Kakadu art is evidence that it is the oldest and most consistent religious belief of the people, continuing into the present throughout northern Australia.

Chaloupka has selected the yam paintings for particular attention. He suggests that during the last glacial age they were probably absent or dormant on the Arnhem land plateau and that they then became apparent after the rise in sea levels 10,000 years ago. They began to figure in the art at the same time the grasslands were submerged and yams became an important food substitute. The people of New guinea regard the ritual accompanying the cultivation of yams as important. Chaloupka also suggests that the humanoid features of the painted yams might have been associated with some extension of New guinea pre-cultivated yam rituals derived from contact between the two areas when the seas were lower.

The x-ray paintings began to flourish with the emergence of freshwater estuarine culture. Barramundi predominate in this art phase, with whole galleries such as Inyaluk, near Oenpelli in western Arnhem Land, being devoted to the giant perch, the prized food of the riverine peoples. According to Chaloupka, the x-ray style did not completely take over, but existed alongside naturalistic images of hunting figures, flying foxes and other animals. In this period the boomerang ceased to be painted, spears changed in design and the spear thrower was introduced. Thee were immense climatic changes and the beginning of wet seasons, and at this time images of the still feared lightning man, Namarrkon, began to appear.

Two major sites, Obiri and Nourlangie rock, are accessible within the Kakadu National Park. Both are now freely available to visitors, who may travel in the comfort of coaches and cars, and thy contain very fine examples of the major art styles in the Arnhem land area. Obiri Rock, one of a large number of outliers in the escarpment area, houses one major gallery, with about thirty-six smaller sites close by. the main gallery, fifteen metres long and two metres high, is situated under a large, deep overhang and is protected by a high shelf along the base which forms a guard against abrasive damage from stock and animals. the paintings are predominantly in the polychrome x-ray style with some examples of red monochrome art of the Mimi style. the designs are large, including several different species of fish. The gallery also includes a small number of turtles, kangaroos and other animals. 

Opposite the main gallery on another outlier is a frieze of five men painted in the Mimi style. This has become known as the running man gallery due to the composition of the figures. All are equipped with pronged spears, spear throwers, goose wing fans and elbow ornaments, and they have string bags on their shoulders. All are painted running except the last one, which is standing stationary on one leg. Other images painted over the top of the frieze include an x-ray tortoise and two triangular-faced spirit women. The paintings concentrate on species of fish and animals that have been hunted for food in the area's lagoons and creeks. Some interesting individual paintings include an Archer fish with water droplets blowing out of its mouth. This fish is unique in that it captures insects for food by shooting water from its mouth, knocking them into the water. The paintings at Nourlangie depict ten male and female figures surrounded by polychrome figures of ancestral heroes and fish, possibly showing the birth of the tribes. One of the major figures is Namarrkon, the lightning man, responsible for thunder, lightning and associated storms. The lightning man is feared by Aboriginal people for his power and his violence and this is reflected in the paintings. These paintings, which were last repainted in 1962-3, continue to play an important part in the lives of Aboriginal people.

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