Bradshaw rock paintings, Bradshaw rock art, Bradshaw figures or The
Bradshaws, are terms used to describe one of the two major regional
traditions of rock art found in the north-west Kimberley region of
Western Australia. The identity of who painted these figures and
the age of the art are contended within archaeology and amongst
Australian rock art researchers. These aspects have been debated
since the works were first discovered and recorded by pastoralist
Joseph Bradshaw in 1891, after whom they were named. As the
Kimberley is home to various Aboriginal language groups, the rock art
is referred to and known by many different Aboriginal names, the most
common of which are Gwion Gwion or Giro Giro. The art consists
primarily of human figures ornamented with accessories such as bags,
tassels and headdresses.
1 Discovery and study
2 Bradshaw art
4 Indigenous knowledge
5.1 Exotic or local artists
5.2 Depictions of shamanistic rituals
6 See also
8 External links
Discovery and study
Bradshaw figures superimposed over a kangaroo and snake. Prince Regent
River area of the Kimberley. Drawn by Joseph Bradshaw in April 1891
Backburning has since largely destroyed the original painting.
Indigenous Australian rock art in the later Wandjina style
Rock art in the Kimberley region was first recorded by the explorer
and future South Australian governor, Sir
George Grey as early as
1838. This rock art is now known as Wandjina style art.
While searching for suitable pastoral land in the then remote Roe
River area in 1891, pastoralist Joseph Bradshaw discovered an unusual
type of rock art on a sandstone escarpment. Bradshaw recognised
that this style of painting was unique when compared to the Wandjina
style. In a subsequent address to the Victorian branch of the Royal
Geographical Society, he commented on the fine detail, the colours,
such as brown, yellow and pale blue, and he compared it aesthetically
to that of Ancient Egypt.
American archaeologist Daniel Sutherland Davidson briefly commented on
Bradshaw's figures while undertaking a survey of Australian rock art
that he would publish in 1936. Davidson noted that Bradshaw's
encounter with this art was brief and lacked any Aboriginal
interpretations; furthermore, as Bradshaw's sketches of the art were
at this time the only visual evidence, Davidson argued that they could
be inaccurate and possibly drawn from a Eurocentric bias. The
rediscovery of the original mural after more than a century has shown
that Bradshaw had a remarkable gift for reproduction without
photography, and that Davidson’s criticisms were unfounded in the
absence of the original. Bradshaw's figures and their existence as
an artistic tradition was questioned; articles and books on these
works were not published until the 1950s.
With the growth of anthropological interest in Peninsula region,
research in the coastal area brought with it an awareness of
Aboriginal art and culture. However, attention to the Bradshaw art
was sporadic. Several researchers who encountered the Bradshaw-type of
paintings during expeditions to the region were members of the 1938
Frobenius Institute expedition. Agnes Schultz noted that unlike with
Wandjina art, Aboriginal people showed little interest in the Bradshaw
paintings, although they recognised them as depictions of bush spirits
When pressed, the expedition's Aboriginal guide explained their
Long ago Kujon a black bird, painted on the rocks. He struck his bill
against the stones so that it Bleed, and with the blood he painted. He
painted no animals, only human-shaped figures which probably represent
Anthropologist Robert Layton notes that researchers such as Ian
Crawford, who worked in the region in 1969, and Patricia Vinnicombe,
who work in the region in the 1980s, were both told similar creation
stories regarding the Bradshaw-type art. Since 1980, more
systematic work has been done in an effort to identify more Bradshaw
rock art sites in the Kimberley.
The most notable has been the work undertaken by amateur archaeologist
Grahame Walsh, who began work there in 1977 and returned to record and
locate new sites up until his death in 2007. The results of this work
produced a database of 1.5 million rock art images and recordings of
1,500 new rock art sites. He expanded his records by studying
superimposition and style sequences of the paintings to establish a
chronology that demonstrated that Bradshaw art is found early in the
Kimberley rock art sequence. He proposed that the art dated to a
period prior to the Pleistocene. Many of the ancient rock
paintings maintain vivid colours because they have been colonised by
bacteria and fungi, such as the black fungus, Chaetothyriales. The
pigments originally applied may have initiated an ongoing, symbiotic
relationship between black fungi and red bacteria.
Based on stylistic characteristics, Walsh categorised two individual
styles of ‘Bradshaw paintings’, which he named ‘Tassel’ and
‘Sash’ for dominant clothing features. He also identified two
variants, which he named ‘Elegant Action figures’ and ‘Clothes
Bradshaw rock paintings
Bradshaw rock paintings in the Kimberley region of
Western Australia depicting the four traditional styles (resized for
Tassel figures: identified by their characteristic tassels hanging
from their arms and waists, various other accessories can be
recognised, such as arm bands, conical headdresses and Boomerangs.
This style is the earliest, most detailed and largest.
Sash: while similar in appearance to the
Tassel figures, the Sash body
is depicted more robustly and the accoutrements depicted are slightly
different: a three-pointed sash or bags attached to the figures belts
begin to be shown.
Elegant Action Figures: quite different from the
Tassel and Sash
figures, these figures are almost always shown running, kneeling or
hunting with multi-barbed spears and boomerangs. These are
difficult to place in the style sequence as they are the only figures
that are not superimposed over a painting from another period. Also,
no other style is superimposed over them and they are the only style
that has not been defaced. Stylistically, they are believed to fall
between the sash and Clothes Peg Figures.
Clothes Peg Figures: were named by Walsh after their resemblance to
old wooden clothes pegs, but they are also referred to as Straight
Part Figures by Welch. These figures are depicted in a stationary
pose and painted with red pigment. Segments of their bodies are
missing, such as their waists, arms and feet, the result of different
colour pigments, such as whites and yellows, fading over time. The
material culture depicted with these figures includes multi-barbed
spears, spear-throwers, and woven bags. This is the most recent
style. The anatomical detail common in the earlier styles is
missing, and many of the images are shown in aggressive stances. At
least one panel shows a battle with opponents arrayed in ranks
opposite each other.
The distribution and stylistic range of these paintings is quite
distinctive, and contrasts with the Wandjina tradition. While more
common in some areas, such as the sandstone regions of the west and
central Kimberley, isolated examples have also been found in several
scattered locations in the east, such as the Napier Ranges, and at the
far eastern border of the Kimberley. The art is primarily
painted where a suitable rock shelter is found; in contrast with
Wandjina art, which has a limited distribution restricted to isolated
sites. Unlike Wandjina, Bradshaw art is rarely found on ceilings,
rather vertical rock surfaces are used, high up in escarpments in
shallower rock shelters with small overhangs and with irregular rocky
floors not suitable for occupation.
The Kimberley region of Western Australia.
The Bradshaw paintings predominantly depict human silhouette figures
that appear to be suspended in the air or in a dynamic style that
suggests running, hunting or dancing. While gender is rarely
portrayed in the paintings, limb, arm and shoulder muscles are often
well defined in addition to stomach paunches. The question of gender
representation in Bradshaw art was illuminated recently by the
discovery that figures are depicted as if they are facing into the
rock face. This perspective has been overlooked until now because
of the Western bias toward images that “face out”, but also
because the “facing in” perspective is more evident in depictions
with excellent delineation of body contours, such as the rare, Classic
Realistic style, which is also earliest in superposition
studies;). If one appreciates the “facing in” perspective, it
becomes evident that the many attributions of “paunches’ by 
are incorrect, both because they can now be seen to be located at the
rear of these figures, but also because it is anatomically incorrect
to attribute the belly to gluteal structures located more
inferiorly. Furthermore, the figures are ornamented with a
diversity of objects such as belts, headdresses, bags and tassels,
while other material culture is sometimes depicted, such as boomerangs
and wands. While Bradshaw initially described the colour of the art as
having shades of pale blue and yellow, most figures have a deep
purple-red hue, mulberry colour or a red to yellow-brown colour.
However, Donaldson notes that there are rare examples of
multi-coloured figures that retain some yellow and white pigment. The
height of the art is variable; most are between 40 and 50 cm in
length with some examples up to 2 metres in height.
Artistically, Bradshaws are unusually advanced both in technique and
style. Image processing has revealed that the outline of the Bradshaw
figures are often painted first, then filled in. Engraving in the rock
often follows the outlines of figures and may have served as a
preliminary sketch which implies planning. Some faces of the figures
are painted with anatomically correct features with enough detail to
be considered portraits. Due to the fine detail and control found
in the images, such as strands of hair painted in 1-2mm thicknesses,
it has been suggested that feather quills may have been used as a
technique to apply the paint to the rock walls; an imprint of a
feather found at one site may support this possibility. No
evidence has yet been found of any corrections or changes in
composition during or after painting, while evidence of restoration
have been found. In a detailed study of 66 Bradshaw panels,
approximately 9% of the Bradshaw images have clearly been vandalized.
Some were scratched with stones, some damaged by thrown stones, and
some have been broken by hammering with large rocks.
With the exception of Elegant Action Figures which have been left
undamaged for unknown reasons, all Bradshaw paintings exhibit possible
vandalism, which may indicate ritual mutilation or defacing.
Superpositioning of images, another form of vandalism, is common
throughout the Kimberley.
The Bradshaws are not the regions' earliest paintings. The earlier art
consists of crude animal drawings that are believed to be up to 40,000
years old. The Bradshaws have nothing in common with this earlier art
and first appeared following the peak of the most recent Pleistocene
glacial maximum, which is dated between 26,500 and 20,000 years
Since the mid-1990s, scientific dating methods have been used to
determine the ages of the Bradshaw paintings. The methods have
Accelerator mass spectrometry
Accelerator mass spectrometry radiocarbon dating (AMS) and
Optically stimulated luminescence (OSL). This was used when mud wasp
nests have been built over paintings, and it gives a minimum age
rather than an actual age of the painting. The results of this have
revealed some inconsistency with Walsh's chronology. Experimental OSL
dates from a wasp nest overlaying a tassel Bradshaw figure has given a
Pleistocene date of 17,500±1,800 years BP. The academic community
generally accepts 5,000 BP for the end of the artistic style. If the
date ranges are correct, this may demonstrate that the Bradshaw
tradition was produced for many millennia. Geoarchaeologist, Alan
Watchman posits that the red paint used on a tasselled Bradshaw image
Drysdale River is "likely to be only about 3,000 years
old." Using the AMS results from accreted paint layers containing
carbon associated with another figure, gives a date of 3,880 BP
making Bradshaw art contemporaneous with, and no older than, Wanjina
art. Around 15,000 years ago, the archaeological record shows that
Aboriginals in the Kimberleys began using stone points in place of
multi-barbed spears, but there is no record of this change of
technology in the Bradshaw paintings. The most recent paintings still
depict the use of multi-barbed spears.
In 2008, rock art depicting what is thought to be a
discovered on the north-western coast of the Kimberley. This
represented only the second example of megafauna depicted by the
Indigenous inhabitants of Australia. The image has a "clothes peg"
Bradshaw superimposed over the thorax, while a "Tassel" Bradshaw
crosses the forearm of the animal. In 2009, a second image was
found that depicts a thylacoleo interacting with an "elegant action"
Bradshaw who is in the act of spearing or fending the animal off with
a multibarbed spear. Much smaller and less detailed than the 2008
find, it may depict a thylacine however, the comparative size and
morphology indicates a thylacoleo is more likely, a position supported
by palaeontologists and archaeologists who have examined the
image. As the
Thylacoleo is believed to have become extinct
45,000–46,000 years ago, this suggests a similar age for the
associated Bradshaw art. Archaeologist Kim Akerman however believes
that the megafauna may have persisted later in wetter areas of the
continent as suggested by Wells, and has suggested an age of
15,000 to 22,000 years for the paintings.
Recent advances in dating methods may shed light on the age of the
paintings and gain a more accurate result. Neuroscientist Jack
Pettigrew has proposed dating the art by using DNA sequencing
extracted from colonies of microorganisms which have replaced the
pigment in some paintings.
Map showing the probable extent of land at the time of the last
glacial maximum 25,000 to 15,000 years ago
The fossil record of climate and vegetation at the Last Glacial
Maximum is sparse, but still clear enough to provide an overview. When
the Kimberley region was first occupied circa 40,000 years ago, the
region consisted of open tropical forests and woodlands. After around
10,000 years of stable climatic conditions, temperatures began cooling
and winds became stronger, leading to the beginning of an ice-age.
During the glacial maximum, 25,000 to 15,000 years ago, the sea level
was some 140 metres below its present level, with the coastline
extending 400 kilometres further to the north-west. Australia was
connected to New Guinea, and the Kimberley was separated from
Southeast Asia (Wallacea) by a strait approximately 90 km
wide. Rainfall decreased by 40% to 50% depending on region, while
the lower CO2 levels (half pre-industrial levels) meant that
vegetation required twice as much water to photosynthesize. The
Kimberley region, including the adjacent exposed continental Sahul
Shelf, was covered by vast grasslands, while woodlands and semi-arid
scrub covered the shelf joining
New Guinea to Australia. Southeast
of the Kimberley, from the
Gulf of Carpentaria
Gulf of Carpentaria to northern Tasmania
the land, including the western and southern margins of the now
exposed continental shelves, was covered by extreme deserts and sand
dunes. It is believed that no more than 15% of Australia supported
trees of any kind. While some tree cover remained in the south/east of
Australia, the vegetation of the wetter coastal areas in this region
was semi-arid savannah.
Tasmania was covered primarily by cold steppe
and alpine grasslands, with snow pines at lower altitudes. There is
evidence that there may have been a significant reduction in
Australian Aboriginal populations during this time. It appears there
were scattered "refugia" in which the modern vegetation types and
human populations were able to survive. With the end of
the ice-age, the Kimberley region settled into a tropical monsoon
climate until a major
El Niño–Southern Oscillation
El Niño–Southern Oscillation event in the mid
Holocene caused the Australian summer monsoon rains to weaken or fail
for some 1,500 years.
The discontinuity in artistic styles between the earlier Bradshaws and
the current Wandjina has been attributed to the severe drought phase
that followed the collapse of the wet season in 5,500 BP. The Bradshaw
style art ended around this time, possibly within 500 years. The
emergence of Wandjina art depicting cloud and rain spirits 3,800 to
4,000 years ago coincides with the end of the "mega-drought" and a
return of the rain which gave the region its current climate. The
research paper's lead author, Hamish McGowan, suggests further
investigation into the resulting cultural collapse and the possibility
that another ethnic group supplanted the Bradshaw artists. The
chair in Kimberley rock art at the University of Western Australia,
Peter Veth, has critiqued the research paper for claiming that
simultaneous changes in climate patterns and art styles indicates the
collapse of a culture. Veth suggests that a climate change coinciding
with the change from Bradshaw to Wandjina art is coincidence, pointing
out that the archaeology of the Kimberley does not show a break in
occupation, and that stylistic changes in Aboriginal art have occurred
elsewhere in Australia. Additionally, the migration of a new ethnic
group into the area is unsupported by the linguistics.
Research undertaken in relation to Aboriginal knowledge has also
increased. This has primarily been seen in Aboriginal names being
applied to the Bradshaw paintings, reflecting the specific Aboriginal
languages used in the areas where they are found. For example, the
Ngarinyin name for the art is Gwion Gwion. Other terms include giro
giro used by Aboriginal people in the Napier, Broome Bay and Prince
Regent River. Australian rock art researcher David Welch notes
that these words are probably different regional accents of Kujon, the
name of the bird found in the creation story originally heard by
Schultz in 1938. Aboriginal people are also more open in telling
foreigners stories regarding the images. These stories often relate to
spirits who created dances which are still performed today and feature
similar apparel found in the paintings, such as headdresses,
boomerangs and string. Bradshaws (Gwion Gwion) are also depicted in
contemporary art works produced for sale in the Kimberley; one notable
Gwion Gwion artist is Kevin Waina.
Research concerning Bradshaw art is controversial and little consensus
has been reached. Debate has primarily concerned Walsh's
interpretations regarding the origins, dating and ethnicity of the
Bradshaw artists, and his rejection of Aboriginal people as being
their descendants. The implications of his interpretations
generated considerable criticism beginning in the mid 1990s due to its
continuing potential to undermine native title claims in the
Kimberley. The ongoing disagreements regarding the age of
the art and debate about whether it was created by non-Indigenous
people makes Bradshaw rock art one of Australian archaeology's most
Exotic or local artists
According to Walsh, Bradshaw art was associated with a period he
called the Erudite Epoch, a time before Aboriginal people populated
Australia. He suggested that the art may be the product of an ethnic
group who had likely arrived in Australia from Indonesia, only to be
displaced by the ancestors of present-day Aboriginal people. Walsh
based this interpretation on the sophistication of Bradshaw art when
compared to other art in the Kimberley region, such as the much later
Media coverage has at times emphasised his claims of mysterious races.
Pettigrew suggests that the Bradshaw paintings depict people with
‘peppercorn curls’ and small stature that characterise San groups;
he speculates that African people travelled, shortly after the Toba
eruption some 70,000 years ago, by reed boat across the Indian Ocean,
provisioning themselves with the fruit of the baobab tree. The
Australian archaeological community has generally not accepted such
claims and believes that Bradshaw are indigenous works. For example,
Dr Andree Rosenfeld argued that the aesthetics of the art did not
support claims for a non-Aboriginal origin when comparison is made to
the aesthetic value of contemporary Aboriginal art. The Australian
Archaeological Association in a press release stated, "No
archaeological evidence exists which suggests that the early
colonisation of Australia was by anyone other than the ancestors of
contemporary Aboriginal people", the release quoted Claire Smith:
"such interpretations are based on and encourage racist
Aboriginal people also criticised Grahame Walsh, arguing that he
failed to hear their explanations of the significance that the
paintings had in their culture. Crawford records being told by an
Aboriginal elder in 1969 that the Bradshaws were "rubbish paintings",
a quote that Walsh would repeat continually in support of his own
theory that the art was not of Aboriginal origin. In the local
Indigenous English, rubbish is an adjective usually used to describe
someone who is too old or too young to be active in the local culture.
Another use is meaning something is not dangerous, for example,
non-poisonous snakes are all considered to be rubbish while in
contrast, poisonous snakes are all cheeky.
Scholars have generally rejected the idea that Bradshaw art was
painted by anyone other than Aboriginal people. Statistical analysis
undertaken by Michael Barry has concluded that the Bradshaw art shares
no stylistic attributes with prehistoric figurative art overseas.
Moreover, Barry argues that stylistically, Bradshaw art has more in
common with art found elsewhere in Australia, such as figures painted
in Arnhem Land. Some popular historians and amateur researchers
have continued to suggest exotic origins for the Bradshaw rock
paintings, although these interpretations are considered fringe by
Depictions of shamanistic rituals
In many cases,
Tassel and Sash figures appear to be involved in either
dancing, ecstatic behaviour, or both which, according to a study by
Michaelson et al., may represent shamanistic rituals or creation
Eucalyptus leaves (which can be used as a psychoactive
drug) are commonly depicted with
Tassel and Sash figures that appear
to be in motion.
Michaelson et al. cited studies by
A. P. Elkin in which he argued that
Aboriginal and Tibetan shamanism have markedly close similarities. He
also noted that the worldwide pattern of shamanism suggests a common
heritage that radiated outward from North Africa about 50,000 years
ago; it may have originated as a woman's role which over time has been
taken over by men. Aboriginal females in Australia have explicitly
been recorded as saying that men had taken over roles they once
performed in ceremonies. This is supported by many completely
different languages having a similar word for female shamans (e.g.,
udaghan, udagan, utygan), while the term for male shamans is distinct
in each language. Michaelson considered it significant that while few
females are depicted in Bradshaw art,
Tassel figures which appear to
be leading ceremonies (the oldest art) clearly have breasts, in
contrast to later art which depicts males in the leading roles.
Pettigrew identifies elements of Bradshaw art with symbols used by
Sandawe artists to convey their experience with hallucinogens, and
others that seem to show hallucinatory elements. From this he infers
that psilocybin-induced trances were a feature of both cultures.
However, only a small number of researchers believe that shamanism has
been part of the culture of Indigenous Australians. George Chaloupka,
an expert on Indigenous Australian rock art, puts it bluntly,
"Shamaniacs rule the world at present...It's just another orthodoxy
basking in its five minutes of sunshine." Grahame Walsh considered the
idea of female shamans in the Bradshaw culture "preposterous".
Pointing out that female Bradshaw images tend to have extremely
prominent breasts, Walsh says that the smaller breasts identified by
Michaelson are probably chest-band decorations.
Aerial fire-bombing and back burning by the Western Australian
Department of Parks and Wildlife and the Department of Fire and
Emergency Services since 2009 as part of the government's fire
prevention strategy to aid the exploitation of oil and gas reserves
has caused paint to peel from over 5,000 of the 8,742 known examples
of Bradshaw art. A survey by archaeologist Lee Scott-Virtue has
determined that up to 30 per cent of the rock art had been completely
destroyed by fire.
Indigenous Australian art
Stone Age art
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^ Morwood, Mike (1996), "Ancient Paintings of Northwest Australia
[Book Review]", Australian Archaeology, 43: 47
^ Jack Pettigrew. "Iconography in Bradshaw rock art: breaking the
circularity", Clinical and Experimental Optometry, Volume 94, Issue 5,
pages 403–417, September 2011, first published online: 24 AUG 2011.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1444-0938.2011.00648.x 
^ Blundell, Valda; Woolagoodja, Donny (2012). "Rock Art, Aboriginal
Culture, and Identity: The Wanjina Paintings of Northwest Australia".
In McDonald, J.J.; Veth, M.M. Companion to Rock Art. Malden: Wiley
Blackwell. pp. 476–477.
^ Barry, Michael; John Peter, White (2004), "'Exotic Bradshaws' or
Australian 'Gwion': an archaeological test", Australian Aboriginal
Studies, 2004 (1): 44
^ Hanbury-Tenison, Robin (28 July 2006), "An earlier start – Lost
World of the Kimberley [review]",
The Times Literary Supplement,
^ Jack Pettigrew. "Iconography in Bradshaw rock art: breaking the
circularity". Clinical and Experimental Optometry Volume 94, Issue 5,
pages 403–417, September 2011, first published online: 24 AUG 2011.
TLS review of Lost World of Kimberley
Kimberley Foundation Australia Researching, preserving and promoting
Kimberley rock art
Bradshaw Foundation Bradshaw Paintings of the Kimberley, North West
Rock star of the Kimberley
New Stone Age
New World crops
Ard / plough
Mortar and pestle
Bow and arrow
Game drive system
Langdale axe industry
British megalith architecture
Nordic megalith architecture
Neolithic long house
Abri de la Madeleine
Alp pile dwellings
Wattle and daub
Megalithic architectural elements
Arts and culture
Art of the Upper Paleolithic
Art of the Middle Paleolithic
Stone Age art
Bradshaw rock paintings
Carved Stone Balls
Cup and ring mark
British Isles and Brittany
Mound Builders culture
Stone box grave
Unchambered long cairn
Origin of language
Divje Babe flute
Origin of religion
Spiritual drug use