Australian Aborigines Create Wandjina Cave Paintings Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Early aboriginal peoples in northwestern Australia believed that beings called Wandjina were associated with the Creation and controlled the elements, human fertility, and the maintenance of other natural species. The ritual of repainting these ancestral images on cave walls was believed to guarantee the continuation of life.

Summary of Event

Rock shelter paintings created by the Worrorra, Wunambal, and Ngarinyin peoples in the northwestern part of Kimberley, Australia, are examples of how rock art established both a source of origin and a place of cultural significance for the Aborigines in this area. The Wandjina were mythic cultural heroes credited with creating the aboriginal social order during a creative period called the Dreamtime, and totemic clans identified themselves by a Wandjina hero. Legends explaining Wandjina vary according to regional lore. Wandjina have been recorded as originally inhabiting the sea and later moving onto land and eventually transforming themselves into painted images on the walls of indigenous rock shelters. Other myths indicate these beings may have been ancestors whose deeds had significance worthy of perpetual remembrance in the form of cave paintings. In either instance, it is within the rock that they continue to exist with the help of initiated male Aborigines who celebrated the spirits by performing a repainting ceremony to maintain their existence.

Like all Dreamtime spirits, the Wandjina could intervene in human lives and are credited with controlling natural phenomena, particularly the clouds, water, and lightning. They are sometimes described as “cloud spirits” and were thought to be responsible for lightning associated with the monsoon rains occurring between December and March. For this reason, Wandjina annual ceremonies were performed prior to the onset of the rainy season. A connection to water may also explain why the Aborigines believed the Wandjina related directly to fertility, since it was believed that the spirit of an unborn child existed in water pools where fish, turtles, or crocodiles containing a child’s spirit might be caught, consumed, and then brought into the human cycle of life. Such animals can be found with Wandjina images on rock walls. The ritual upkeep of these sacred images is the manner in which Aborigines to this day ensure a balanced relationship with nature and maintain a historical legacy for future generations.

Painted Wandjina figures were seen by a European, the English explorer Lieutenant George Grey, for the first time in 1838. The impressive figures, reaching 6 meters or more in height, were painted standing or lying horizontally. Frontally depicted, they have round heads, circular eyes, no mouths, radiating lines or semicircular bands around the tops of their heads, and a biomorphic oval shape extending below the head in what would be the chest area. Some representations are from the chest upward; others are covered or clothed figures with arms and feet. Lines coming out from the top of the head are thought to represent feathers or perhaps lightning.

Although exact dating of the Wandjina style is difficult because ritual repainting of the images makes it impossible to identify an “original” Wandjina, most scholars believe this type of rock art to have appeared about three thousand years ago; this dating has been aided by the associated depiction of stone-tipped spears, a technology that dates to this period. Some argue that the figures may be eight thousand years old or even significantly older.

Male artists assigned to repainting the cave images commonly belong to groups thought to have descended from the Wandjina. Generations of artists have used the same pigments for each repainting. Black charcoal and red or yellow ochre are applied over a white background, enhancing the clarity of the figure. The pigments are mixed with water and applied with fingers, the hand, or a fibrous natural brush. White is applied first with the hand to create a background. Then colors are added using the artist’s finger for thicker lines and a fine brush for thin lines. This repeated and sacred act of overpainting the spirits is thought by the Aborigines to supply them with a direct conduit to the primordial world, a multidimensional connection linking past, present, and future.

Contemporary southwestern migrations of the Worrorra and Ngarinyin peoples have introduced Wandjina to other areas outside northwestern Kimberley. New materials—bark, engraved shells, nuts, stone—have been explored as expressive means of propagating the sustaining power of Wandjina.


The existence of the ghostlike Wandjina images in northwestern Australia has shown not only that the area was populated several thousand years ago but also that these people had a well-developed belief system. These and other rock paintings in the Kimberley region, especially the Bradshaw figures, are among the oldest in the world. The ability of human beings to invest representational art with symbolic power—here to preserve essential ancestral power through the generations—thus received early expression in these figures.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Capell, A. “Cave Painting Myths: Northern Kimberley.” Oceania and Linguistic Monographs 18. Sydney: University of Sydney Press, 1972. Interpretation of 1930’s and 1940’s research into the linguistic and metaphysical origins of Wandjina.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chaloupka, G. Journey in Time: The World’s Longest Continuing Art Tradition. Sydney: University of Sydney, 1993. General conceptual information. Well illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crawford, I. M. The Art of the Wandjina: Aboriginal Cave Paintings in Kimberley, Western Australia. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1968. Good overview of Wandjina regional variations, painting techniques, and related imagery. Numerous illustrations in both color and black and white.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sutton, P., ed. Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia. New York: Viking Press, 1988. Serves to place Wandjina within the aboriginal concept of Dreamtime.

Categories: History