Lost World Of The Kimberley: Extraordinary Glimpses Of Australia’s Ice Age Ancestors (Book Review)

Ian Wilson
Allen & Unwin 2006
(pp ix + 315)

This article first appeared in Skeptical Adversaria 2 (2009), 6-8 (Republished in Investigator Magazine (Australia) 128 (2009), 23-28)

Reproduced with permission

Part travelogue and part intellectual detective story, this book by a well-known British independent historian and anomalist deals with the Bradshaw rock-paintings of the Kimberley in Western Australia, first seen by a European (Joseph Bradshaw) in 1891 and taken by some to represent ‘proof’ of a pre-Aboriginal Australian culture.

These paintings contain many stylised human figures and a range of symbols and representations of artefacts. They are in a style identified as not otherwise encountered in Australia. Their dates have been heavily debated but may be very early (see below on Wilson’s conclusions); and local Aboriginal people do not regard them as their ancestors’ work (or even as human in origin, though there are suggestions that their producers may have been the mysterious ‘Mimi’ people referred to in Northern Territory Aboriginal myths). In books published in 1994 and 2000, the self-trained scholar Grahame Walsh argued that they represent the work of a pre-Aboriginal group who came to the area as long ago as 75,000 BP when the climate was more equable and developed the art-form during a long sequence of cultures. He went on to speculate as to where such a group might have originated, likening the art itself to certain African forms but more seriously suggesting that a negrito group such as those found on some Indian Ocean islands might have been involved (arriving via Indonesia). Such a group would later have been displaced by Aboriginal populations; Wilson now proposes various possible destinations suggested by some of his cultural equations (see below) and also by genetic considerations. Or else they would have been assimilated into the Aboriginal population. But they would originally have been genetically and culturally quite distinct; and Walsh held that there was some evidence (skeletal, mythological, etc) pointing in this direction.

The movement of Aboriginal people into Australia appears to have been part of the earliest phase of homo sapiens diffusion from Africa. Even those Aboriginal people who have not been seduced by the currently trendy postmodernist/anti-scientific idea that their ancestors were ‘created’ in Australia, as recounted in their tribal ‘dreamings’, lay great stress on the scientifically demonstrated vast antiquity of Aboriginal settlement, as well as its priority. [1] Any suggestion that Aboriginal people were not alone in being the first inhabitants of Australia is obviously a major political ‘hot potato’! [2] [3]

Now Ian Wilson, as an enthusiastic outsider and diligent enquirer, has added to the mix. His relationship with the rather secretive and indeed over-protective Walsh has been somewhat testy, and access to some of the sites was denied him for conservation reasons; but he has nevertheless managed to photograph many of the paintings. He argues that (while not of the vast age posited by Walsh) the Bradshaws nevertheless date back as far as 30,000-20,000 BP – similar to the dates for the ‘dreaming’ which have been suggested by Robert Bednarik and others. This dating is still impressively early but (ceteris paribus) it does remove the provocative implication that the artists were necessarily non-Aboriginal. But Wilson has to admit that different dating methods have yielded wildly divergent dates for paint, biological material, etc associated with the Bradshaws; and at times he appears inclined (as have some other researchers) to favour some dating results over others mainly because the former support earlier dates. (There has also been contamination of some of the sites, eg by re-painting of the Bradshaws, or as a result of over-painting with later Aboriginal wandjina figures – but these effects obviously reduce the apparent ages of the Bradshaw paintings.)

Most dramatically, however, Wilson interprets the content of the paintings as indicating a degree of material culture far ‘higher’ than is normally ascribed to humans in this area at this date: elaborate garments, ocean-going boats, agriculture, etc. [4] In several instances, Wilson does seem to have a case for this view. And he cites the discovery (from 1965 onwards) of stone axe-heads at various locations in northern Australia, which indicates that relatively advanced material cultures did indeed exist on the continent (albeit presumably among Aborigines) only a little later than Wilson’s dates for the Bradshaws. (It has to be emphasised, however, that Wilson does sometimes appear to be rather over-interpreting the images along the lines he favours.)

Importantly, the sophistication and size of the vessels portrayed (some shown with crews of as many as 29) suggest that seafaring might not have been beyond the capacity of the Bradshaw Culture – which links in with Wilson’s diffusionist ideas (see below). Note, however, that the Aborigines proper must themselves have initially sailed at least 100 km to reach Australia – there has been no land-bridge to Asia in the relevant period – and that to all appearances some members of homo erectus sailed to Flores before 800,000 BP! This suggestion, while interesting, is thus not as dramatic as might be imagined.

The Bradshaws also contain many representations of animals. These include what are very probably thylacines, now long extinct on the Australian mainland. The animals in question look more like thylacines than dingoes, and in any case the dingo is believed to have been brought to Australia (by Aborigines) only at a much later date. In addition, animals closely resembling antlered deer are shown. Apart from the dingo, no placental land-mammals are known from pre-colonial Australia. Maybe the Bradshaw artists knew deer from elsewhere (and were motivated to represent them in the Kimberley); or they may have brought deer to Australia (why?); or the animals may be members of a now-vanished deer-like species (presumably marsupial or monotreme) not represented at all in the fossil record. Any of these scenarios would be rather dramatic.

Wilson links his ideas with those of Stephen Oppenheimer, who has argued (1998 and after; mainly on the basis of allegedly cross-culturally shared myths and artefact-styles) that a South-East Asian continent was catastrophically flooded, leading to massive diffusion both westwards and, crucially, eastwards into Australasia and the Pacific (and maybe even beyond), at dates which would mesh with Wilson’s dating of the Bradshaws. Wilson cites similarities of many kinds between the symbols and artefacts displayed in the Bradshaws (hand-prints, clothing, the aforementioned vessels, non-Aboriginal hair-forms, boomerangs, representations seen by him as similar to Indonesian wayang kulit puppets, etc) and items or representations found outside Australia. He proposes (as did Walsh) that the Bradshaw artists migrated from other Indian Ocean/Asian regions or at least had influential contact with peoples widely distributed across that part of the world (some of the parallels, as with those identified by Walsh, are with items from locations as remote as East Africa, or even Egypt). He also adduces – as does Les Hiddens – evidence of the early transoceanic diffusion of eg plant species (either natural, by way of sea currents, or human-borne) as proof that this scenario is at least possible.

Oppenheimer has been criticised for loose comparative methods and tendentious over-interpretation; his ideas remain controversial. [5] And Wilson too may sometimes be again guilty of a degree of over-interpretation here. For example, he identifies ‘mother goddess’ figures in the paintings, relating these to the theories of an ancient, very widespread goddess cult proposed by the feminist anthropologist Marija Gimbutas, herself a highly controversial figure (and also a proponent of dubious linguistic notions). But there is only limited evidence of a goddess cult in Australia (though admittedly such evidence as there is does relate to the relevant part of the continent), and the figures shown are too general in form to give Wilson much support here. He has to admit, in fact, that this idea is mainly speculative.

In some respects, however, Oppenheimer may have a stronger case; and, if Wilson’s case too is deemed relatively persuasive, some of his diffusionist ideas as to the origins of salient features of the Bradshaw Culture might then appear more plausible. It has to be added, however, that (as Walsh’s early critics observed) there is no other accepted archaeological evidence of such a non-Aboriginal culture in the area, and also that even the very oldest homo sapiens remains found in Australia are all clearly Australoid (eg, those at Mungo Lake and Kow Swamp, both much further south; Wilson refers to both sites, on pp 208-214 and p 207, respectively). Firmer conclusions must therefore await the results of further investigation.

NOTES

[1] The very early dates of 120,000-176,000 BP for the Jinmium rock-shelter which some readers may have seen proposed in the 1990s were later corrected to a mere 10,000 BP; but the date of Aboriginal arrival is still given as around 60,000 BP.

[2] Similar views have also been adopted by various fringe thinkers, some of whom appear to have anti-Aboriginal axes to grind (prejudice works both ways!). Some of those who agree with Walsh do not help their own case by accusing other scholars of bias in a manner rather reminiscent of fringe attacks on the ‘blinkered’ mainstream. Arguably unfairly, Walsh’s early critics in turn identified Walsh’s position as ‘informed by racist perceptions of what Aboriginal people are capable of’, by a ‘19th-century diffusionist framework’, and by ‘colonialism’. Wilson himself at times appears concerned to adopt views about the historical ecology of Australia, the validity of Aboriginal belief-systems, etc, which will not offend Aboriginal people. This is obviously a politically challenging area in which to work! At least the Bradshaws, not regarded by Aborigines as ‘their own’, are not protected from study by Aboriginal taboos – only (see below) by Walsh’s protectiveness and by conservation imperatives.

[3] My background comments are drawn from my papers.‘Playing the man: diffusionism, racism and the dreaded Bradshaws’, in The Skeptic (Australia) Vol.22, No.2 (2002), pp.20-22 … and ‘Tales from the Big Brown Land’, in Skeptical Adversaria 7 (2004), pp 2-5.

[4] If Aboriginalists firmly accepted the Bradshaws as Aboriginal work – even though they are disavowed by local contemporary Aborigines – this interpretation would, of course, be eagerly used to counter the traditional and still popular view of Aborigines as ‘savages’ whose hunter-gatherer lifestyle had remained largely static for all those thousands of years until Europeans began to arrive: the Dutch just after 1600 CE, and according to some the Portuguese also, a century earlier. But, as things are, attitudes on this front are less definite. (See below on axe-heads.)

[5] I myself am best equipped to assess Oppenheimer’s theory in respect of the specifically linguistic equations which he adduces; and in this respect both he and his linguist collaborators seem inadequately informed as to historical linguistic theory and methodology, adopting the usual outdated amateur philological methods. This issue does not arise in this present case: there was no written language in pre-colonial Australia, and current Aboriginal languages are not relevant.

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