65,000 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.
Gwion Gwion occur in rock art throughout the central and west Kimberley in Western Australia. They are also called Bradshaw figures after Joseph Bradshaw, the first European person to describe them in 1891. They usually appear as thin and elegantly drawn figures in mulberry red ochre. Despite few Australian’s being aware of their existence, these uniquely preserved works of art have been described as the eighth wonder of the ancient world.
The paintings portray a lively and complex culture depicting a tall and mysterious people.Many of the paintings show people carrying unusual tools, weapons and implements, including boomerangs as well as the bow and arrow. The graphic skill, graceful postures and choreographed group activities imply a high social and intellectual level. Some commentators believe this ancient rock art represents the highest cultural evolution so far encountered in prehistoric times.
Due to their extreme age, a thick glaze has formed over the pigments, a silica patine which accumulates on rock surfuces in arid areas. Thusly preserved, the images are effectively frozen in time. In 1997 scientists were able to date fozzilised wasp nests covering some of the artworks and arrived at minimum dates of 16,000 to 17,500 years. The excavation and dating studies are highly controversial, revealing the artists vanished completely around 20,000 years ago. The sites show nearly 9,000 years of continuous occupation before they are completely abandoned during the extremes of the Ice Age, coincident with the disappearance of numerous rain forest species. Signs of human occupation do not reappear until after 7,000 BC.
The local Aborigines of the present can’t explain the meaning of the paintings, as they can with the paintings of later art sites. They say they have no knowledge of the scenes depicted, claiming they were painted by a long beaked bird known as, Gwion Gwion, depicting spirits invisible to humans. In Ngarinyin cosmology the Gwion Gwion started out as a spirit man. He cracked open rocks to reveal stone tools locked inside, the gimbu (knife), spear point and axe. In some images Gwion Gwion (also known as Djinarrgi) appear to be dancing in circles, and in lines, often passing objects from one to the other. In this form they represent the gift of ceremony, and the sharing system that ceremony celebrates. To this day, Ngarinyin men dress in the same way as the Djinarrgi for ceremony and dance.