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Oldest Culture
The myth of the world's oldest culture

Mungo Man

Bradshaw PaintingsThe lost world of the Bradshaws

CitiesWhy no cities or villages?

DreamtimeThe Dreamtime

The extinction of the Megafauna

Migrant Flora and Fauna in AustraliaMigrantion of flora and fauna

wrestling and reconciliation
Wrestling and reconciliation

Retreat of rainforests in AustraliaRainforest Retreat

Aboriginal values

Red Earth Blue Sky


Bradshaws - Boat Painting

The Lost World of the Bradshaws (Guion Guion)

"The Bradshaw Paintings are incredibly sophisticated, yet they are not recent creations but originate from an unknown past period which some suggest could have been 50,000 years ago." Peter Robinson, Project Controller of the Bradshaw Foundation.

In northern Australia, a mysterious form of rock art could legitimately be referred to as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Known as the Bradshaws, the art is dispersed in around 100 000 sites spread over 50 000 sq. km of northern Australia. Although the art's pigment can't be dated, a fossilised wasp nest covering one of the paintings has been dated at 17,000 + years old. This makes the art at least four times older than the pyramids of Egypt. It also makes the art a comparable age to the Grotte Chauvet paintings in France, which have been dated at 30,000-years-old. Although radio carbon dating was used to date the Grotte Chauvet pigments, the Bradshaw art can't be dated in the same way. Because they are so old, they have become part of the rock itself.

Aside from being extremely old, the Bradshaws are very significant to world history because paleolithic art typically uses animals as the primary subject while the Bradshaws typically depict humans. In addition, they show the humans with tassels, hair adornments, and possibly clothing. Such body adornments are usually found in agricultural societies that have developed hierarchical systems of status. In a nutshell, the art shows cultural approaches that were not believed to exist until agriculture developed around 10,000 years ago.

The only real expert on the Bradshaw art was the late Graham Walsh, who documented and studied the art for over 40 years. For a number of reasons, Walsh proposed that they were painted by an Asiatic people prior to the last ice age. For Walsh, one piece of evidence was the oral history of the local Aboriginal people who told him that the paintings were before their time and that they did not know what they communicated. Not only did the Aborigines not know what the Bradshaw paintings communicated, their own art, the Wandjinas, was significantly different. Specifically, Wandjinas were a human-like face that was replicated over and over. The arc around their heads represented lightning and the little short lines represented falling rain. In a nutshell, the Wandjinas were like deities based on the monsoonal wet season. Replicating them over and over perhaps showed the importance of the seasons to nomadic peoples.


A Bradshaw


A Wandjina

Walsh's second reason to support the Asiatic theory was the lack of any sign of skill development in the art. The Bradshaw paintings simply appeared in their most advanced form with straight lines, relatively symmetrical curves and limbs equal in length.  For Walsh, the fact that only highly skilled paintings existed was evidence that the Bradshaw artists learnt how to paint on a surface other than a cave wall. It was only once an artist had mastered the skill that they were allowed to paint on the rock.

A third reason to support the Asiatic theory was a lack of evidence of the Bradshaw people aside from the art. According to Walsh, not even stone tools have been found. Admittedly, nomadic people have perhaps walked over the region for tens of thousands of years so that any relics may have been carried away. Furthermore, the Bradshaw people could have been located on a part of coastal Australia that has since been submerged by rising seas.

Aside from proposing that they were painted by an Asiatic people, Walsh proposed that there were a form of iconography (picture writing) because they demonstrated repetitive patterns and styles. One was a Tassel Figure, which had tassels hanging from their arms and waists. A second was the Sash, that had a robust form and a three pointed sash attached to the belt. A third was the Elegant Action, which showed a figure running, kneeling or hunting. The fourth was the Clothes Peg, which was shown in a stationary pose and with segments of their bodies missing.

The four main styles

As well as showing signs of status hierarchies that weren’t believed to have existed until the development of agriculture 10,000 years ago and being suggestive of picture writing, the art also undermines conventional theories of human history with a painting of a canoe with four people on board seems to show technology that wasn't believed to have existed until the rise of the Roman and Chinese civilisations 2,000 years ago. One feature of the canoe is what appears to be a rudder at the stern. (It is generally believed that ancient Romans and Chinese invented the stern mounted rudder in the 1st century AD.)

A second feature of the canoe is the very high front and back ends. Because Australian canoes were usually made from hollowed out trees or bark curled upwards, the fronts and ends of canoes are usually the same height as the middle sections. If the Bradshaw people made the canoe from a tree, it would have had to have been a tree almost as wide as a person, which would have been extremely difficult to cut down and carve using stone tools. Likewise, if it were made from wrapped bark, then the front and back would need to be affixed somehow, which would require a method to give strength and water tightness. More practical methods to attain the high front and backs would be to use a combination of pieces of wood, which would probably require metal carving, drilling, sawing and shaping tools, which were only believed to have been invented around 4,000 years ago. Alternatively, animal skins could be woven over a frame made out of strong but flexible material like bamboo and then made water tight using resin or tar. Neither technique was known to be used in Australia.

As for the question of why go to the trouble of having high front and back ends, the most plausible explanation would be that it would make the canoe less likely to nose dive when surfing down large waves and less likely to fill with water when piercing large waves. In which case, it was a boat for open water, not lakes and rivers.

A third feature of the painting are keels, which would have been quite important to counter balance the high ends when cross winds were blowing. If the canoe were carved out of a tree, the ability to fix a keel onto a canoe would require relative advanced carpentry skills to either carve a slit into the bottom of the canoe that a straight but strong piece of timber could be slipped through or to affix a piece of flat timber on the bottom in a way that could withstand the pressure of four people rolling against it on the waves. If the canoe was made out of animal skins woven over a frame, perhaps a keel could be made of animal skins wove over a frame as well. Admittedly, the objects that resembled keels might also be paddles, but this would beg the question as to why only the middle two figures were shown with paddles below the water line and why the paddles don't match the arm positions. (Before he died, Walsh said he had a photo of a boat with 29 people on board, but an academic feud kept him from sharing.)

Bradshaws - Boat Painting

(Winyalkan Island)The ends of the boat are almost as high as a person sitting upright. How much more difficult was it to make the boat with high front and back ends and what was the purpose? Was it for a windbreak? To catch the wind? Ornamental? To reduce the chance of a nose dive in large waves?

Could it be a rudder 16,000 years before rudders were believed to have been invented?

Bradshaw Boat Keel

Could they be keels? If so, how was flat wood attached?

While it is not essential to understand the meaning of the symbols to appreciate the Bradshaw art, making judgements about the type of culture that created them is essential for trying to contemplate their meaning. If the Bradshaw art was created by hunter gatherers, then it would be ceremonial, related to food gathering, attuned to the environment or be a method to record unusual things that were seen. If it were created by an agricultural people, the art would deal with issues such as hierarchical systems of status and could perhaps be a form of iconography. Furthermore, if the canoe was painted by a hunter gatherer people, it would probably be am ordinary canoe that was painted out of proportion for an unknown reason. If it were by an agricultural people; however, then it could demonstrate technology that would require the tools and techniques that are typically possessed by people who make permanent dwellings. For example, metal tools and carpentry.

Unfortunately, the Bradshaws have been too politically sensitive for academic discussion in Australia. For example, when the conclusions of Graham Walsh were first published, they concerned the Australian Archaeological Association. Consequently, on the 18th December 1995, the Association issued a media statement declaring that Walsh's interpretations were "based on and encourage racist stereotypes." The media statement was signed by Australia's leading archaeologists of the time. The Association was concerned that talking about the Bradshaws as significant and complex made contemporary Aboriginal art seem insignificant and simple by comparison. It was an argument that was a bit like saying people shouldn’t study ancient Egypt in case it made contemporary Egypt seem simple and common by comparison. Aside from being concerned that people might find the Bradshaws to be significant and complex, the Association was concerned that if the authorship of the Bradshaws were not ascribed to the local Aborigines, then they couldn’t be used in land rights claims. Again, this was a bit like saying contemporary Egyptians had no right to manage the relics of ancient Egypt if it couldn't be proved they were the direct decendents of ancient Egyptians.

With the Australian Archaeological Association labelling him a racist, funding for Walsh's research dried up and other researchers became wary of making judgments on a politically sensitive subject matter. A year later, the Australian Archaeological Association stated:

"The human prehistory of the Kimberley region certainly involved cultural, technological, linguistic, artistic, and genetic changes. For instance, at various times, local population extinctions and replacement seem to have occurred as a result of climatic fluctuations and environmental deterioration during the Pleistocene (O'Connor 1990). The sheer linguistic complexity of the region today also indicates that the cultural sequence has been complex and probably involved contact and genetic input from adjacent areas of SE Asia. To argue for human cultural and genetic continuity in the Kimberley region over a minimum of 40,000 years, is to argue for a degree of conservatism without parallel anywhere else in the world and which is at odds with the current archaeological record. Even so, there is no basis for ascribing Bradshaws, or any other prehistoric Australian rock art, to any other than the ancestors of contemporary Australian Aborigines.

It is worth noting here that at the time of European contact there was significant cultural, linguistic, artistic and genetic variation between indigenous groups across Australia, but all were by definition 'Aboriginal'.

Basically, the Association said that even though there is great evidence of change and diversity in the region, the only question that mattered was that they were Aboriginal, or more specifically, not European. With this question safely answered, the art warranted not futher discussion. Since then, academia has largely ignored it.

More by Graham Walsh






"They look ancient but at 10,000 years of age they’re much younger than the lightly built Mungo people. How could that be? " Mungo Man

"The Bradshaw Paintings are incredibly sophisticated, yet they are not recent creations but originate from an unknown past period which some suggest could have been 50,000 years ago." Bradshaws

"The reduction of plant diversity, however it came about, would have led to the extinction of specialized herbivores and indirectly to the extinction of their non-human predators." Megafauna extinction

" Is the keelback’s ability to coexist with toads a function of its ancestral Asian origins, or a consequence of rapid adaptation since cane toads arrived in Australia?" Migrant flora and fauna

"I've set myself the modest task of trying to explain the broad pattern of human history, on all the continents, for the last 13,000 years. Why did history take such different evolutionary courses for peoples of different continents? (Jared Diamond)" Why didn't Aborigines build cities?

"It then dawned on the old man lizard that the lesson to be learnt by watching the kangaroos, was that death need not be the outcome of the fight." Wrestling and reconciliation