Introduction to the Bradshaw Paintings / Gwion Gwion
Bradshaw Painting from the Kimberley
The Australian Rock Art Archive currently focuses on the rock art of the Kimberley region, featuring the Gwion Gwion rock art, also known as the Bradshaw paintings, and the Wandjina rock art. The Gwion Gwion rock art is claimed to be the earliest figurative art in the world. Sixty five thousand years ago, our ancestors crossed by boat in groups from Timor into Australia. It is just possible that some members of these groups were assigned the task of recording their beliefs, hopes, fears, and spirits by painting on the rocks of carefully considered locations. If that is the case, the cave paintings of the Kimberley region of north west Australia could be among the earliest figurative paintings ever executed.
The work of Professor Stephen Oppenheimer in the Journey of Mankind Genetic Map, tracing the migration of anatomically modern humans out of Africa 85,000 years ago from our ancestral home, proves that we had beach-combed our way along the coastlines to reach the Timor Sea. Between sixty and fifty thousand years ago our ancestors would have stood on the shores of South East Asia, then known as Sundaland, where without doubt they would have observed the smoke from the distant bushfires caused by lightening on a land that had not yet been reached. With fluctuating sea levels, Oppenheimer shows how ‘our’ window of opportunity to get to Australia was achieved by sea-craft.
The painting below of a four man canoe with upswept prow and stern, possibly the world’s oldest boat painting, is located at a site in the Kimberley. Significantly, another panel depicts a long line of twenty-six or more antlered, four legged animals standing along a simple, single base-line.
Deer Painting Panel
Deer of any kind have never been part of Australia’s fauna. As noted by the great 19th century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, the incidence of placental, hoofed mammals such as deer ceases abruptly beyond a line drawn east of Java, Borneo and the Philippines. Conversely, the Australasian continent’s predominantly marsupial fauna such as koalas and kangaroos are never found any further west of this same line. To have depicted deer, the artist would have had to voyage across the Timor Strait. Very likely the species of deer depicted in the painting is the sambar, an antlered variety, small herds of which still exist in Borneo but which may well have been more widespread across the then sub-continental Southeast Asia at the time of the Ice Age.
Exploring the Kimberley
Not only does the discovery of this painting have profound implications for peoples’ capability to voyage by boat between Southeast Asia and northwest Australia, it also demonstrates the artists were painting from memory. The presence of a base-line is rare in ancient rock art. Does it represent a horizon? Did it become a symbol that conjured up for the ancient voyagers, having inadvertently crossed the Wallace Line, the departure from one world to enter another?
The approximate date of the colonisation of this continent is based on scientific evidence. The date of the Gwion Gwion rock art is not. In fact, the mystery surrounding this distinctive style of rock art, who the artists were, when they were painted, and for what reason, is part of their attraction. Unfortunately this mystery has sometimes been used as a political vehicle to hijack the art, and in so doing, obscure their beauty and sophistication. It also complicates their preservation.
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