Early Australians Create the Bradshaw Rock Paintings

Almost twenty millennia ago, members of a sophisticated hunter-gatherer culture in northwest Australia created thousands of images, known as the Bradshaw paintings, on rock walls.

Summary of Event

The Kimberley region is in the northern section of western Australia and includes the King Leopold mountain range, from which several rivers descend to the Indian Ocean. North of the mountain range are plateaus of grassland, but land travel over the mountains remains difficult. In 1838, one of the earliest nonindigenous visitors to the area, the British explorer Sir George Grey, described the Kimberley as the roughest terrain he had ever seen. Grey discovered a group of rock paintings now described as belonging to the Wandjina period, the youngest epoch of paintings in the region. The rocks in this region are extremely ancient, more than 400 million years old, and it is believed that certain unique climatic and chemical factors preserved the paintings by embedding them in the sandstone. Grey’s published drawings of these images stirred excitement in the academic world.

In 1891, explorer Joseph Bradshaw, along with his brother, was surveying the upper Price Regent River in the Kimberley area for potential grazing land. He found a “gallery” of remarkable paintings and was struck by their appearance.

I rode out and found that the river at this place emerges through a gorge in the sandstone range . . . in the secluded chasms of these rocks were numerous aboriginal paintings which appeared to be of great antiquity . . . some of the human figures were life-size, the bodies and limbs very attenuated, and represented as having numerous tassel-shaped adornments appended to the hair, neck, waist, arms and legs . . . the figures are endowed with a strong feeling of reality and graceful movement.

During the century after the initial discovery, more than one thousand paintings were found within an area covering approximately 19,300 square miles (50,000 square kilometers), and thousands more undiscovered or undocumented galleries are believed to exist. The Bradshaw family name was given to this style and epoch of paintings, which represent some of the oldest known human artifacts.

Later expeditions, including the German Frobenius expedition of 1938, provided further documentation of the vast range of sites, and the Bradshaw rock art was eventually divided by style into four major categories: The oldest are the Tassel Figures, which portray extensive ornamentation; followed by the Sash Figures; the Elegant Action Figures, which are shown running and hunting; and the more abstract Polychrome Clothes Peg Figures, believed to be the most recent.

The precise antiquity of the paintings is unknown, and estimates reach as far back as 60,000 years. In 1996, Grahame L. Walsh, one of the most active researchers of Bradshaw art, discovered a means to establish the minimum age for some of the paintings. He found a Bradshaw painting that was partly covered by a fossilized-mud wasp nest. By using the luminescence method, scientists were able to determine the age of single grains of quartz embedded in the nest, showing that the painting underneath the nest was made at least 17,500 (±1,800) years ago. Other paintings dated using the radiocarbon method appear to be younger, but there is little doubt that a wide span of human history is represented. Traditional carbon-dating technology is problematic in the case of the Bradshaw paintings because with the passage of time, the original pigments were infused into the rock itself as petrified shades of mulberry red, impervious to rain, wind, and the curiosity of scholars.

The connection between the ancient Bradshaw paintings and the Aboriginal Australians of modern times is not clear, and the topic remains highly controversial. In some Aborigine legends, the images were painted by birds, who pecked the rocks until their beaks bled and used their tail feathers to paint with their own blood. Although Aboriginal peoples living in the immediate area have dismissed the paintings as being of little significance and of a time before theirs, other Aboriginal groups have identified them as part of their heritage and wish to restrict access to them. Although the Bradshaw paintings remain enigmatic, there are proven connections between contemporary Aboriginal cultures and later rock art styles, which are also found in other regions of Australia. Still ancient by Western standards, the newer styles have striking features of their own, including simultaneous representation of interiors and exteriors (this technique is sometimes referred to as X ray).

Walsh of the Bradshaw Foundation has suggested a possible Asian origin for the people who created the Bradshaw art. He points out that the Kimberley shoreline is only about 300 miles (480 kilometers) from Indonesia and was even closer during the last Ice Age, permitting waves of immigration. However, other than the paintings themselves, material remains of the culture that produced the images have been very sparse, so researchers have focused on the content of the pictures to gather clues about the people. For example, boomerangs are included in some of the paintings, suggesting a connection to more recent Australian cultures, but other details, such as the elaborate headgear with tassels, are very unfamiliar. Some of the animals represented in the paintings are now extinct, and this has attracted the interest of paleontologists and bio-historians.


Understanding the Bradshaw art is an ongoing challenge that will require the joint efforts of scholars from many disciplines, and these activities are likely to continue for many years. Aside from the technical issues mentioned above, the sheer volume of the material is daunting; of an estimated 100,000 Bradshaw galleries distributed over 19,300 square miles (50,000 square kilometers) of rough terrain, only a handful, estimated at between 1 percent and 2 percent of the total, have been documented.

The International Rock Art Research Team (IRART), which has representatives from the United States, Canada, and Denmark as well as Australia and began its work in 1998 under the guidance of Per Michaelsen of James Cook University, has been collecting data and conducting new analyses using digital photography. Walsh, who was awarded the Thompson Medal by the Royal Geographical Society in 1990 for his many years of research on the Bradshaw paintings, continues to advocate for the preservation of the paintings, which are potentially threatened by artifact poachers and corrosion from industrial pollutants.

Most researchers agree that the Bradshaw paintings can provide valuable information about human life at the end of the last ice age. Because of the wide scope of time represented, changes in subject matter of the Bradshaws suggest human responses to significant environmental changes during the last glacial-interglacial cycle. The early Bradshaw images show abundant plant material, and the later images show more weapons, a possible response to an increasingly dry climate with dwindling food supplies.

Aside from questions about one of the earliest known human civilizations, there is strong consensus on the aesthetic value of Bradshaw art. The Bradshaw artists’ use of powerful, dynamic silhouettes, especially in the Elegant Action Figures genre, has been compared to the work of the twentieth century French artist Henri Matisse, whose silhouettes of dancing human figures are especially well-loved. The elongated human figures in the ancient art from Kimberley are frequently portrayed in graceful, balanced postures that seem to be on the verge of escaping gravity. Many of these earliest depictions of human clothing show that our forebears of the last ice age, with tassels flying away from their heads, shared our desire for personal ornamentation.

Further Reading

  • McCarthy, Frederick. Australian Aboriginal Rock Art. Sydney, Australia: Australian Museum, 1958. General survey of Australian rock art and paintings. Illustrated.
  • Mowaljarlai, David, and Jutta Malnic. Yorro Yorro: Aboriginal Creation and the Renewal of Nature. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 1993. Rock paintings and stories of the Wandjina people, the other major group in the Australian Kimberley region. Color plates, glossaries.
  • Walsh, Grahame L. Australia’s Greatest Rock Art. Bathurst, N.S.W., Australia: E. J. Brill/Robert Brown, 1988. An examination of rock art by an expert in the field.
  • Walsh, Grahame L. Bradshaw Art of the Kimberley. Toowong, Qld.: Takarakka Nowan Kas, 2000. In this work, Walsh focuses on the Bradshaw paintings of the Kimberley area. Illustrations and colored maps.
  • Walsh, Grahame L. Bradshaws: Ancient Rock Paintings of North-West Australia. Carouge-Geneva: Edition Limitee, 1994. Published for the Bradshaw Foundation, this is the definitive source of information on the subject. Includes illustrations, maps, photographs, and diagrams.