Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Art - Archaic Faces Panaramitee Tradition

The Panaramitee Tradition included the first known representation of the human face in the world, according to Cane1 there are virtually no faces portrayed in prehistoric art anywhere else in the world. In antiquity the main artists painted the animals they hunted but not other humans, any images that includes them are portrayed in part as headless figures, any images that include representations of humans they lack heads, though they sometimes have hair or headdresses. In contrast the human face is the most common representation in Western art of the present.

In Europe the Venus figurines are the best known and earliest representations of humans that were carved between about 22,000 and 16,000 years ago, and they are abstracted images of women with enlarged proportions - large buttocks and huge breasts. Heads are rarely found on these figurines, and where they are there is no face. Another phase of human representation followed the Venus figurines about 12,000 years ago, a tradition in which the human representations were depicted in concerted action, such as hunting and fighting, though the faces are still lacking, apparently the painters were not concerned with individuals or personality, rather expressing a broader social consciousness in which people were represented similarly regardless of their age or gender. According to Cane1 the evolution of human representation has been interpreted as mechanistic representations of demographic and social circumstances. The homogeneity of the earlier figurines are seen as pointing to open social networks, mobility and low population densities (societies of similarity). The variability and complexity on a regional scale of the later action figures indicates closed social networks and higher, more sedentary, competitive, self-defining populations - societies of difference. It is not until late in human history that the human face emerges in the West, less than 5,000 years ago. The first such representations of the human face were in places such as Egypt, with as the author1 describes them, lifeless faces in Egyptian sarcophagi or the cold marble eyes of early Greek statues.

In Australia things were different within the Panaramitee Tradition where faces were engraved in the very early phases of human history, at least 10,000-15,000 years before any representations of faces appear in the rest of the world. The earliest human faces known in the world first appear arid Australia across the desert from the Burrup Peninsula to the Calvert Ranges in the Gibson Desert and Cleland Hills of central Australia, across an area of about 666,000 km2. The faces are engraved in stone and have pecked eyes that are surrounded by concentric circles, with mouths, noses and ears set in heads that are heart-shaped. It is suggested by associated weathering that they are from 25,000-10,000 years old, though their actual age is still to be determined. The earliest dates for them is circumstantial which suggests they may be from 29,700-37,700 years old.

According to the author1 the engravings of faces are expressive, in some cases being comical in their ability to express their feelings and moods such as surprise, happiness, anger, horror, frustration, distress, stupidity, annoyance, and disillusionment. Cane1 suggests it is clear that the engravers of these faces at disparate locations were capable of expressing feelings and emphasising with the feelings of others. These faces convey the first notions of personality anywhere in the world, where people are portrayed as individuals within the society and environment to which they belong. 'The engravings thus imply the emergence of subjectivity through the embodiment of self and the singular expression of human identity and personality in the context of society and its geography.'1.

With these engravings, the representation and composition of these faces at distant places across the vast expanses of desert imply, as do the engravings of the 'climbing men', that the engravers belonged to the same social system, a system that was probably defined by mobility, communication and religious conformity, and within this system the artistic representation of faces suggests that a regional social identity had developed. Distinctiveness within the greater social context is implied by the recognition of the human face necessitating the realisation of other people in this social relationship. Therefore engraved faces allude to both an emergent sense of self and an emergent sense of difference on a regional scale, and possibly competing political and territorial perspectives in the larger landscape of society. The result is that the archaic faces paint a portrait of nomads with a common culture, as well as a regional identity that is emerging.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Cane, Scott, 2013, First Footprints: The epic story of the first Australians, Allen & Unwin

Scott Cane has included in his book, written as a companion to the ABC TV series of the same name, a number of stories from his days living among Aboriginal people in the desert and moving around with them.

Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated  08/12/2013
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