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The Unambal
The Unambal
The Unambal
The Unambal Aborigine Tribe of North West Australia
This is a historical document based on material gathered during an expedition of the Frobenius-Institute, Frankfurt, in 1938, and during an expedition in 1955.
An account of Doctor Andreas Lommel's studies in 1938 of the Unambal Aboriginal Peoples living in north-western Australia

In 1938 Doctor Andreas Lommel, a member of the Frobenius Institute, lived for several months in the Outback of north-western Australia in a region called Kimberley, with the Aboriginal Peoples named Unambal. During this time he recorded and photographed the daily life of a hunter-gatherer culture.

Introduction
by [the late] John Robinson, co-founder of the Bradshaw Foundation

Dr Andreas Lommel
Dr Andreas Lommel
© Frobenius-Institut, Frankfurt
I first met Andreas and Katharina Lommel on June 23rd 1955 when Constable Buster Thorpe and I rode our mules into their camp north of Gibb River Station where they were studying a sacred Wandjina Cave painting.

Buster was the resident policeman of Fitzroy Crossing, a one-horse town in Kimberley, north-western Australia. With two Aboriginal trackers, the four of us were on the last mounted police patrol, a 700 mile ride on mules visiting some of the Cattle Stations north of the King Leopold Range. Gibb River Station was our most northern destination and we had come to check up on the activities of two German archaeologists, Andreas and Katharina Lommel.

Katharina was an artist, and her job was to trace the Wandjina paintings on the walls of the sacred Aboriginal site, and then copy them onto canvas and reproduce the original colours. In 1955 there was no colour photography. Her paintings can still be seen in the Munich Natural History Museum.

Translated extracts from Dr Lommel’s publication ‘Die Kunst des alten Australien’, recording the time he lived with a north-western Australian Aboriginal Tribe in 1938, follow below:

Extract from ‘Unambal’ by Dr. Andreas Lommel

Katharina Lommel
Katharina Lommel
© Frobenius-Institute, Frankfurt
The Indigenous Australian People see the Earth as the great serpent Ungut. The Milky Way is seen as another serpent called Wallanganda. Between them, these two Serpents gave birth to ‘Creation’ by dreaming all the creatures that live on the Earth, including the spirit ancestors of the Aboriginal people, and also the Wandjina who bring both rain and fertility.

The Australian Aboriginal Peoples lived in two times only: the primeval times, in which all life came into being, and the present. There is no future. Their language has numerals for ‘one’, ‘two’, and ‘three’ but the word for ‘four’ is the same as ‘very many’.

The Wandjina are divided into two groups; the originators of all human customs and the inventors of all implements. The Wandjina can change from one form to another at will; from a Wandjina, to a w a human, to an animal. The Wandjina live today at the bottom of the ‘watering place’ associated with each particular painting. According to the Aboriginal People, when the Wandjina lay down, they entered the earth, leaving their imprints on the stone, so they were believed to be the originators of the rock paintings.

Another version of the creation of the paintings is that little birds named ‘Kujon’ created them at the Wandjina's request, with blood from their own wounded beaks. No one has ever seen the birds painting, but it is believed to be true. The birds also painted the human figures, named Bradshaw Paintings, on the rocks but these have no connection with the Wandjina paintings, although they are often found in the same rock shelters.

The oldest man in the hunting group has the task of re-painting the Wandjina before every Monsoon. When he is finished the artist fills his mouth with water and blows it over the painting, because in ancient times the Wandjina blew the rain over the land in this way. The Wandjina have no mouths so they make a noise that sounds like thunder. When the Wandjina want the rain to stop they become rainbows so the world will not flood. If a Wandjina fails to make rain the old man returns to the painting and throws stones at it, or defaces the nose.

The Unambal
The Unambal
© Frobenius-Institute, Frankfurt
 
Unambal hunting group
Unambal hunting group
© Frobenius-Institute, Frankfurt
 
Wandjina Painting with Serpents
Wandjina Painting with Serpents
© Frobenius-Institute, Frankfurt
 
Ngungunda Wandjina site
Ngungunda Wandjina site
© Frobenius-Institute, Frankfurt
 
Wandjina Serpent
Wandjina Serpent
© Frobenius-Institute, Frankfurt
 
Wandjina Painting
Wandjina Painting
© Frobenius-Institute, Frankfurt

The Aboriginal People believe the act of procreation is of only slight significance for their entry into life, although they are in no doubt at all about this physical function in the case of animals. In their view, spirit children split off from the Wandjina and then live in the depth of the water with them. Only through a dream process can a man acquire such a spirit child. A further dream process is necessary to transmit the spirit child to the man's wife. The spirit child is about the size of a finger, and when the father finds one he can bind it into his hair and carry it around with him for years.

Rock Art of the Kimberley
A man gives the spirit child to his wife in a dream process. She dreams that she has received the spirit child, which resides in the pit of her collarbone. Later the spirit child changes into a small snake or lizard that enters the woman's body through her vagina.

A child's sex is known from the moment the spirit child is found, but at the moment of birth its sex can be changed. The Aboriginal People stick a club upright in the sand beside the woman giving birth if they want a boy or a cleft digging stick if they prefer a girl. After birth the umbilical cord is hung around the child's neck and must not be lost, otherwise the child would die. The child is then washed and fine charcoal dust is rubbed into its skin to make it black. When a person dies the spirit child returns to the Wandjina's watering place where it was found in a dream by the father.

Besides the spirit child, each person also has a series of others souls or shadows. After death one of the shadows goes to an Underworld, in which life proceeds as it does on Earth. A connection is possible between a living person on the Earth and the shadows in the Underworld. Contact with the shadows of the Underworld is the function on the Medicine Man, who is a central figure of importance in the lives of the Aboriginal People.

The Medicine Man

Medicine men are at the centre of the community and life among the aboriginal People comes to an end if he dies or he loses his skills. He is the collective soul of the hunting group, and his job is to make good all that is not as it should be. From a biological viewpoint, the Aboriginal Peoples’ whole life is considerably more strongly influenced by the ‘psyche’ than it appears to be in Western Man's case. He is their link with primeval times and the Creation, and without him a complete degeneration of their order and life occurs. Life in the present is only possible through constant contact with primeval times. The mediator between the present and primeval times is the Medicine Man, as he not only lives in the present, but in him the creative forces that were in operation in primeval times are still alive today.

Through dreams the Medicine Man can establish contact with primeval forces. In a state of trance he separates his shadow from his body, and sends it to distant lands or the Underworld. Before the wet season starts the Medicine Man goes to the rock painting of the Wandjina to re-establish contact. He is also the only one who can associate safely with the rock spirits that eat the corpses and carry off people's souls. Finally it is the Medicine Man who can send his soul to the underworld, thus maintaining the link between the living and the ancestors.

It is the task of the Medicine Man to fill the Wandjina with renewed life, in this way to guarantee the rain for each year. This same power enables him also to heal sick people, ensure success in the hunt, or even kill people who prove to be a burden to the fellowship of the tribe. The Medicine Men are the poets of the tribal community, receiving the Corroboree (songs and dances) from the Underworld.

Initiation Ceremony

A very important event in the life of a young male Aboriginal is the which makes him an adult man, and is performed at the first signs of puberty. These initiation ceremonies consist of circumcision and the incision of scars on his chest, shoulders, arms and buttocks. The wounds are filled with sand in order to produce larger scars. In the case of a young girl the initiation ceremony happens at the onset of the first menstruation, when scars are incised on their buttocks. She is then deflowered by members of her own marriage class, after which she can cohabit with all young men who are classed as possible husbands.

Kurangara men
Kurangara men
© Frobenius-Institute, Frankfurt
 
Kurangara men
Kurangara men
© Frobenius-Institute, Frankfurt
 
Kurangara ceremony
Kurangara ceremony
© Frobenius-Institute, Frankfurt
 
Kurangara sticks
Kurangara sticks
© Frobenius-Institute, Frankfurt
 
Ceremony
Ceremony
© Frobenius-Institute, Frankfurt
 
Ceremony
Ceremony
© Frobenius-Institute, Frankfurt

For the young man circumcision is followed by subincision when his beard starts to grow. The young man is seated on rock while his penis is split open with a stone knife along its full length on the underside. The penis, once split open, is pressed flat against the rock on which the young man is sitting. The Aboriginals explained that this is done in order to make it “lighter and more beautiful".

A red blossom is placed in the wound because the penis is to be as red as possible on the inside. After the young man has been initiated in this way he is allowed to make stone spearheads. The Wandjina cast the first bolt of lightning by splitting open his penis and in this way was able to discharge fire and lightning from it. The Wandjina created fire by turning the red inside of his split penis outwards so that fire could come out. The Wandjina can direct lightning by taking his penis in his hand and with his club show the lightning the direction it is to take.

In this way he can strike his enemies with lightning or shatter trees to get firewood for himself. I have often observed the aboriginals in thunderstorms trying to follow the Wandjina's example of directing flashes of lightning, and no amount of failure was able to shake their belief. The aborigines decorate their spear-throwers with a yellow serpent to represent lightning.

The Aboriginal People believe a natural death occurs only if the person concerned was very old. If a younger person dies it is attributed to the magic influence of a hidden enemy.

The aborigines then say that the person concerned has been "sung" or had a "pointing stick" aimed at him. Therefore if a young man dies, it is considered to be murder. The murderer is discovered by placing the body in the branches of a tree, around which each man places a stone. The murderer is detected when the dead man's kidney fat drips onto a particular stone.

When the medicine man returns he can see the spirits who are waiting to eat the dead man's flesh that has fallen from the tree. The spirits tell him the name of the murderer who is then either killed with spears or sung to death. When the flesh has fallen from the bones they are divided into two bundles, one contains the long bones and one the skull.

The mother of the dead carries the bundles around with her for about a year, until they are finally deposited in a special cave. The skull is deposited at the painting of the Wandjina who was the deceased ancestor. The dead man's wife is taken over by one of his brothers, if one of them is old enough, or, if they are all too young, she is free to marry whom she likes.

The Soul after Death

Unambal
Unambal
© Frobenius-Institut, Frankfurt
The Aboriginal People believe they have various souls or shadows. The one that returns to the watering place for rebirth resides in his kidneys. Another shadow resides in the shoulders and stays with the dead man's bones to guard them. The third resides in his testicles and helps him when hunting, and tugs his hair to make it grow thicker.

The realm of the shadows is in the West on a stony island, with plenty to eat and drink, which is very beautiful and always has a fresh wind blowing so is never too hot. To get there the shadow of the dead person climbs into the sky from the tree on which the corpse is lying, and goes to the land of the dead on a thin string. The journey takes one day.

In the realm of the dead it is dark at first. On arrival the soul sits down on a stone and looks around and then goes into the ground as if on steps. Beneath the earth it is bright, the dead moon shines there; there is also a great fire there, in the smoke of which the souls of arriving aborigines cleanse themselves. Immediately on arrival the souls of the departed rush to the new arrival and ask where it came from. The soul answers, at the same time calling its mother's name. The mother's soul forces its way through the crowd of aboriginal souls, looks at the newcomer and is glad to see him. The soul then gets smaller and smaller, sheds its feet on which it walked to the realm of the dead via the string in the sky, the feet become bats and remain hanging on the rocks.

The soul becomes so small that it fits into a bark carrier, which the mother soul then carries around with her for the same length of time as she carried her child in her body on earth. From the bark carrier the aboriginal soul is then born again, grows up and then lives forever in the realm of the dead.

Corroboree

The performance of a Corroboree is of enormous importance to the Aboriginal People. Corroboree is the name given by the Aboriginals to dances that are performed by song leaders, with the assistants of a chorus using rhythm sticks. The dancers are painted and adorned with feathers and clumps of leafy twigs.

There are many accounts of 200 dancers and 300 singers taking part in a Corroboree at one time. One song attended had 38 verses.

When moving through this region the Unambal Tribe travel by sea as far as possible. From south to north they first cross the Prince Regent River and then go to Harding Point, from where the journey by dugout canoe begins. The outgoing tide carries them to Lamarack Island, the incoming tide to Bigge. From there with the outgoing tide to Combe Hill and with the ebb tide to Prudoe Island. The incoming tide takes them to Tancred Island, and the next incoming tide to Cape Voltaire, where the Unambal territory comes to an end.

Kurangara dancers
Kurangara dancers
© Frobenius-Institut, Frankfurt

Rock Art Links

→ Australia Rock Art Index
→ Introduction to the Australia Rock Art Archive
→ Rock Art of the Kimberley
→ Dating the Rock Art of the Kimberley
→ Australia's Oldest Known Rock Art
→ Film - Griffith University's Laureate
→ ABC Radio National 'Nightlife'
→  Experts rush to map fire-hit rock art
→ The aftermath of fire damage to important rock art at the Baloon Cave tourist destination, Carnarvon Gorge, Queensland, Australia
→ Studying the Source of Dust
→ The Kimberley
→ Out in the Back Country - Hugh Brown → Bradshaw Foundation
→ Rock Art Network

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