Australian Ice Age Rock Art May Depict Earth's Oldest Recordings of Shamanistic Rituals

By Michaelsen, Per; Ebersole, Tasja W. et al. | Mankind Quarterly, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Australian Ice Age Rock Art May Depict Earth's Oldest Recordings of Shamanistic Rituals


Michaelsen, Per, Ebersole, Tasja W., Smith, Noel W., Biro, Paul, Mankind Quarterly


Bradshaw rock art, unique to the Kimberley, Northwestern Australia, depicts human-like figures characterized by extensive headdresses and elaborate body ornamentation.Numerous figures seem to float in space, as though in ecstatic behavior. Bradshaws, at least 17,500 years of age, may represent the world's oldest depictions of shamans and shamanistic rituals. Significantly, recent discoveries indicate some shamans may have been women. The worldwide distributional pattern of shamanism suggests it dispersed from a common source. Its possible representation in Bradshaw paintings gives important clues of the early spread of human behavioral patterns.

Keywords: Bradshaws, rock art, Kimberley, Upper Paleolithic, shamanism.

Recently, apparent shamanism depicted in Franco-Hispanic Ice Age rock art has become the subject of much attention (e.g. Smith, 1992; Bahn, 1998; Batter, 1999). However, rather than depicting ecstatic or shamanistic behavior itself, such as human-like figures dancing, drum-beating, hallucinating, or performing acts of healing, a majority of these cave paintings portray animals. Animals are a source of power from which shamans in many cultures derive their power. In stark contrast to Franco-Hispanic animal depictions, Bradshaw paintings principally depict human-like beings. Ethnographic studies (e.g. Elkin, 1950, 1977; Lommel, 1952; Eliade, 1973; Sales, 1992) show that shamanistic belief systems have been well developed in Australia, including the Kimberley region, where power is received in symbolic form provided by heroic beings, often from the rainbow or water serpents.

Bradshaws of the Kimberly probably represent the largest concentration of Upper Paleolithic Ice Age rock art in the world. Up to 100,000 rock art galleries are estimated to exist in the northern part of the Kimberley (Michaelsen, 1999; Michaelsen and Ebersole, in press). Data from recent excavations indicates that the Kimberley rock art system represents a minimum time span of 40,000 years (O'Connor, 1995; Fankhauser, er al., 1997). The northern Kimberley region is an isolated, rugged, and timeless tropical landmass, about the size of Denmark (Fig. 1). Bradshaw galleries are typically found on large, quartz-rich, sandstone overhangs, concentrated along the banks of seven major river systems. Other paintings are found in rock shelters.

Bradshaw rock art is named after the pastoralist, Joseph Bradshaw, who first documented it (i.e. Bradshaw, 1892), and the term is entrenched in the literature (e.g. Welch, 1993, 1996; Flood, 1995; Walsh, 1997; Watchman et al., 1997; Mulvaney and Kaminga, 1999; Walsh and Morwood, 1999). Artistically, Bradshaws are unusually advanced both in technique and breath of style. They seem to have arisen as unique compositions. However later superposition of elements in different styles and colors make interpretation somewhat difficult. New work by Watchman (1997) sheds some light on the nature of the pigments employed from a small number of samples. Overall, the principal color appears to have been derived from iron oxide rich material possibly from fine clay. There is no indication of a binder as oil, wax or albumin from egg which would likely contribute more carbon to the spectra. Thus, it appears that the natural process of silication may be solely responsible for their preservation. Paint may have been applied with the fingertip judging by the consistency and width of some outlines. Image processing also reveals that figures were often painted in outline first, then filled in. Engraving in the rock along outlines of figures may have served to sketch the compositions first. Special techniques in image processing reveal some well-painted faces with anatomically correct features, practically being portraits. In many instances, the human anatomy is represented in a highly evolved, realistic, and sensitive manner. Heavy and consistent stylization suggests the hand of talented and well-practiced artisans. …

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