'Strange Paintings' and 'Mystery Races': Kimberley Rock-Art, Diffusionism and Colonialist Constructions of Australia's Aboriginal Past

By McNiven, Ian J.; Russell, Lynette | Antiquity, December 1997 | Go to article overview

'Strange Paintings' and 'Mystery Races': Kimberley Rock-Art, Diffusionism and Colonialist Constructions of Australia's Aboriginal Past


McNiven, Ian J., Russell, Lynette, Antiquity


Amongst the most striking and the most handsome of ancient Australian relics are the Bradshaw paintings of the Kimberley, in the remote northwest of the continent, uncertainly dated but seemingly most ancient. According to one published view, the Bradshaws are not so much 'early Aboriginal' as 'pre-Aboriginal'. Issue is taken with that notion, in light of European attitudes to Aboriginal accomplishment over the last two centuries.

Recent discourse on Aboriginal-European contact history (e.g. Reynolds 1981; Attwood 1989) has given little attention to the role of science, and in particular of archaeology, in dispossession. Working within the intellectual tradition of 'post-colonial scholarship', we here explore aspects of colonial intellectual ideology that still frame and constrain the production of archaeological knowledge (see Spurr 1993). Our paper responds to Graham Walsh's Bradshaws: ancient rock paintings of north-west Australia (1994) and its suggestion that Bradshaw paintings may have a 'non-Aboriginal' origin. In historical context, Walsh's interpretations echo 19th-century scholarship and deep-seated colonialist perceptions of Aboriginal people and their rights to native title.

Diffusionism and Aboriginal Australians

In the wake of Columbus' American discoveries, the European world-view held Europe and adjacent Near East (the 'Biblical Lands') to be the 'cultural hearth' of a world divided into an Inside (European) domain of innovation and progress, and an Outside domain, 'stagnant and unchanging ("traditional ")' (Blaut 1993: 6). In the Inside-Outside schema, Europe is 'humanistic' and 'historical' while the Outside world of 'savages' is 'natural' and 'ahistorical' (Pratt 1992).

Colonialism took the fruits of European civilization out to the world, initiating cultural change, progress and the beginnings of history itself. None of the elements used to define civilization (such as administration, writing and social stratification) applied to Australian indigenous societies, making them extra-Outsiders, among the lowest 'savages' at the 'uttermost ends of the earth' (Gamble 1992; Jones 1992); 'the very zero of civilisation' as observed one Australian colonist (Cunningham 1828: II, 39). These views can be traced back to Hume (1753 quoted in Gates 1985: 10) who asserted that 'black races' had '[n]o ingenious manufactures among them, no arts, no sciences'. In a new 'evolutionary' guise, progressionism saw human variation in terms of 'differences in development' (Tylor 1878: 372) and the progress of extra-Outsiders thwarted by their inability to invent. Australia held a very special place as 'a museum of primeval humanity and a storehouse of fossil culture' (Mulvaney 1964: 31), with Aboriginal Australians revealed as Palaeolithic survivals by their 'primitive' technology and use of flaked stone tools (Lubbock 1865). Yet Aboriginal Australians also possessed 'superior' items of material culture - stone circles (Miles 1854) and ground-edge axes (Tylor 1878: 201-2). How were these anomalous traits to be explained?

Two 19th-century diffusionist theories accounted for this. An advanced predecessor theory held that superior traits had entered Australia through migration of an advanced race which either died out or degenerated into a more primitive (Aboriginal) people. An advanced successor theory proposed that superior traits had diffused into Aboriginal society either with advanced immigrants or through contact with advanced visitors. In the first framework, attempts to document advanced pre-Aboriginal races in Australia sought a European homeland; the fossilized 'bow of an English canoe (of the Rob Roy type)' was said to have been excavated by gold miners in Gippsland (Gregory 1904: 121), and megalithic structures similar to Stonehenge were identified near Mt Elephant in western Victoria (Russell & McNiven n.d.). At Mt Elephant, non-Aboriginality was enhanced by claims the sites were without 'knowledge' (Simpson 1867: 82) and 'tradition' (Chambers & Chambers 1872: 19) among local Aboriginal people.

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