Bradshaws & Boabs

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  In the Kimberleys region of Western Australia, there are a number of sites featuring a distinctive style of rock art known as "Bradshaws". This art is named after Joseph Bradshaw, an explorer, the first European to record the style in the 1890s. These images have more recently been renamed "Gwion Gwion", by the Ngarinyin Aboriginal Corporation. The origin of this art is unclear, and some of the paintings have been dated as being more than 20,000 years old. It is said that the local indigenous people of the area claim no connection with the artists. Bradshaws exist nowhere else in Australia. They have been referred to as "some of the world's finest prehistoric depictions of human form ... groups of graceful figures coiffed in elaborate headdress and clad in tasselled finery" by one of their documenters, Grahame Walsh*.

Kimberley boab

Another unusual feature of the Kimberleys is the boab tree. The boab is also known as the bottle-tree, or by its African name, the baobab. These trees, with their distinctive thick trunks, are also found in Africa, including Madagascar. There are eight species: six in Madagascar, and one each in Australia (adansonia gibbosa or gregorii) and Africa (adansonia digitati). It is said that there is evidence of them in some parts of Indonesia. They can live for up to 800 years.

Les Hiddins, the "Bush Tucker Man", once inferred a connection between these two unusual residents of the Kimberleys. The seed of the boab is edible - it is high in vitamin C - and it was suggested that if the artists of the Bradshaws came to north-western Australia from Africa, boab seeds, also known as "sour gourd", may well have come with them as a transportable food source. (It has also been suggested that the boab survives from a time when Australia was joined to southern Africa in Gondwana. This connection was severed 65 million years ago, and the boab is a rare exception to the otherwise wide floral gap between the continents.)

A third oddity to be introduced here is the elephant bird. The elephant bird (aepyornis maximus) was a giant, flightless, ostrich-like bird of Madagascar, and probably became extinct around 800 years ago. It stood up to three metres high, and weighed about 450 kg. The bird also produced a large egg. Only about one dozen of these are said to now exist around the world. One of these was found in sand dunes at a Western Australian beach in 1993. This egg is 800 mm in circumference, with a volume of seven litres - the equivalent of about 150 chicken eggs. (What size carton would you need for the dozen?) Dating performed on this egg places it as being some 2,000 years old.

The appearance of this egg would seem to demonstrate that sea travel from Madagascar to Western Australia could have been possible with a very simple craft, provided that it could float for long enough to complete the voyage. Could the Bradshaws have been painted by migrants from Madagascar, ultimately defeated by the harsh Australian environment? Certainly the Kimberleys have defeated a number of more recent immigrants.

Grahame Walsh adheres to the migration theory for the Bradshaws, and tells of being criticised for racism as a result. In The Age of 20 September 2004 he reports some new findings in his latest Kimberleys field trip - his twenty-seventh annual pilgrimage. These are "two paintings of ocean-going boats, one with 23 people on board, the other 29. They are massive boats, totally alien." He estimates the age of these paintings as more than 17,000 years, and claims that "Australian Aboriginal people didn't have boats." It is in these claims that Walsh has made enemies - he is seen as racist and a "tool of political conservatives." The possible existence of people in Australia before Aboriginal migration may be used by those opposing Aboriginal land claims.

The migration origin theory is attractive. However, Michael Barry* of Sydney University disagrees with this in a recent honours thesis. This was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald of 21 June 1997. He performed a statistical analysis of the features of rock art from a large number of sites around the Indian Ocean. His findings were that the Bradshaws bear no significant resemblance to any other site, except to some art in Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory, and a less likely link to art in Algeria.

Much of the early settlement of our part of the world is linked to a movement of people known to anthropology as the Austronesian Migration. This movement is believed to have started from somewhere near Taiwan, and spread out towards Africa and Polynesia - even to Central America. One continuing evidence of this is that Tetum, the indigenous language in East Timor, is closely related to the Maori language in New Zealand. (The first wave of the InterFET forces into East Timor in 1999 included a number of NZ Maori military personnel, brought in to serve as translators.)

New Zealand appears to be the last place reached by this wave of migration, only hundreds of years ago. These people took both their languages and food with them. Oddly, there is no evidence of this wave ever touching Australia, apart from the possible common link of the boab tree. Another plant carried would appear to be the banana, which was already in Central America before the Spanish arrived. This touches on another migration theory; that demonstrated by Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki expedition. It would appear that Heyerdahl's epic journey actually went in the wrong direction. In fact, an even more recent suggestion is that the indigenous people of some part of the Americas may be descended from Australian aborigines - a novel possibility. It does seem that the Polynesian people certainly travelled extensively around the Pacific. (For an interesting personal view of "a possible Polynesian connection to pre-Columbian America and the Book of Mormon", see Pen Fiatoa's web site.)

Barry's claim is that the migration explanation for the Bradshaws is denying the possibility of the ancestors of today's indigenous inhabitants being "good enough" to produce the art. Ideas such as this are rooted in racist stereotypes. Certainly this is not a unique case of such thinking; Erich von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods? insisted on interstellar travellers being necessary to explain almost all art and artefacts of the ancient world - many of which were already satisfactorily understood by archaeology at the time of writing. Oddly, he didn't see the need of aliens to explain the equally amazing medieval cathedrals of Europe. His ancestors were obviously more capable than the "primitives" of the rest of the world. This cultural imperialism - the concept of some cultures being more primitive and thus "inferior" to others - has become ingrained in European thinking since Darwin, and is at the root of European colonialism.

Many advances of modern thought are based on the impact of earlier mistakes or misinterpretations. While the migration theory of the Bradshaws may be wrong, however enticing it may appear, it has sparked off Barry's research. Would this have been done if there were not this hypothesis to refute? There are many more famous examples of such original hypotheses causing creative refutations. The psycholinguistic "deep structure" theory of Noam Chomsky provided a yardstick for most of the field ever since, even though it is now itself not generally accepted. In the process, it provided a useful structure for defining a whole family of computer languages, most notably Pascal. As Mark Twain put it: "There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact."

The Boab is important to both African and Australian indigenous cultures. It is a strong spiritual presence, and a source of food and material. In the Australian creation stories, it was seen as becoming too proud and arrogant, and was punished by being re-planted upside down, and made to be fat and grotesque.

Based on an article that originally appeared in the Oct/Nov 1999 edition of TableAus.

More information

Read more about Grahame Walsh and Bradshaws at the Bradshaw Foundation web site - go to the "Bradshaw Paintings" page. See Michael Barry's work and a copy of the newspaper article at Michael Barry's Rock Art Page.

  Updated: 22 Sep 2004 To Top    

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