Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Bradshaw Figures (Gwion Gwion)

The Bradshaw Figures, found in the Kimberley region of Western Australia are similar to the early Mimi style of painting. They were painted in red ochre, though it is possible there were originally others colours that have now gone from the figures, they are very old. They consist of figures averaging about 35-30 cm high. Like the Mimi art, the figures wear elongated head-dresses, pubic skirts, and armlets and tassels. They hold barbed spears and a boomerang. For the last 3,000 years barbed spears were not used in the Kimberleys, spears apparently being tipped with stone points made by pressure flaking. The Bradshaw figures are usually drawn in profile in hunting and dancing scenes, as well as other activities.

It has been argued, based on circumstantial evidence (Grahame Walsh) that they were probably of Pleistocene age. Luminescence dating of a mud-dauber wasp nest covering a Bradshaw figure by Bert Roberts has now shown that at least some of these anthropomorphic paintings are more than 17,000 years old. (1). The dated figure has been confirmed to be a Bradshaw figure, transitional between the classic Bradshaw art and the clothes peg figures, by Walsh. Thus supporting the suggestion that the Bradshaw figures predated the last glacial maximum, and in fact their production was terminated at the beginning of the glacial maximum, presumably as the area of most of the Kimberley became uninhabitable. This abandonment of the area can also be seen in a number of occupation sites such as Carpenter's Gap Rockshelter, Widgingarri I and Widgingarri II, Koolan Shelter 2 and Drysdale 3 sites (G.L. Walsh and M.J. Morwood in Archaeology in Oceania, vol. 34 (2) 1999 pp. 45-58 and in Bradshaw Art of the Kimberley (Nowan kas Publications book).

According to Ian Wilson3 if the Bradshaw Art are indeed from from the Pleistocene Ice Age they may hold the claim for the oldest know paintings of boats, as a few of the known Bradshaw paintings depict people in boats. Walsh2 has a photo of a site where a boat has been depicted that had 29 people in it.

The local Aboriginal People of the present can't explain the meaning of the paintings, as they can with the paintings of later art sites. They say they have no knowledge of the scenes depicted, claiming they were painted by a bird, depicting spirits invisible to humans. The Bradshaw figures are much fainter than the well-known Wandjina paintings. They are believe to be at least as old, and possibly older than the Wandjina paintings. They are believed to be as old or older than those of the dynamic style of Arnhem Land.

According to Ian Wilson3 the Bradshaw Art, that has been estimated by some to number about 100,000 in the Kimberley. Though their age is not known it has been suggested that the large number of paintings indicates that they may have been painted at a time when the climate of the Kimberley region was cooler than at present, as the country is now uninhabited for part of the year. The last time the area would have been cooler was more then 20,000years ago in the Pleistocene Ice Age. If this time suggestion is correct they would have been approximately contemporary with the oldest of the cave paintings found in Europe.

One feature in which the Bradshaw paintings differ from the cave paintings in Europe is that they are painted on open rock surfaces, the other being that they represent human figures rather than the animal figures that were painted in the European caves. The author3 describes the Bradshaw paintings as being painted 'with almost Michelangelesque virtuosity'. Many of the Bradshaw figures are apparently wearing elaborate paraphernalia such as sashes, string skirts, anklets and armlets. Some of the figures are apparently wearing elaborate headdresses that are very long, suggesting they may have been shamans. Many of the figures are carrying boomerangs, some of which are shaped rather stylishly. If the suggested time of the paintings is correct it suggests to the author3 that they were even more advanced than the best of their western counterparts for their visual insights into the day to day lives of the painters' people.

See Nawarla Gabarnmang Rock Shelter


  1. Bradshaw Aboriginal Art of the Kimberley

  2. Gwion Gwion (Bradshaw) Figures

  3. Rock Art

Sources & Further reading

  1. Flood, Josephine, 2004, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, JB Publications.
  2. R. Walsh, G. Roberts et al., Luminescence dating of rock art and past environments using mud wasp nests in northern Australia', Natture, vol. 387, 12/6/97, pp.696-9
  3. Wilson, Ian, 2006, Lost World of the Kimberley, Extraordinary Glimpses of Australia's Ice Age Ancestors, Allen & Unwin.
Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated 29/06/2013

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