Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

The Panaramitee Tradition

Lesley Maynard proposed a 3-part sequence of patterned variation she observed within the known rock art of Australia. According to the proposed evolutionary model there was a homogenous stage of petroglyphs that occurred throughout the continent, 'the Panaramitee', that are probably of Pleistocene age.

Following the Panaramitee there were 2 generalised groups that were regionally diverse styles, simple figurative and complex figurative. The Panaramitee style is most common in the arid central regions of the continent, where the track and circle tradition has been identified, but is widely distributed across Australia. A characteristic of the Panaramitee style is the occurrence of small, pecked petroglyphs, most of which are less than 10 cm long, thousands of which have been found. Most have been pecked out in outline or as a solid form. Most of the limited range of motifs are tracks or circles, of either complex or simple form, pits or dots, lines that can be simple or complex, crescents, radiating or mazes. (Flood, 2004). Among the figurative motifs are human figures, vulvas, faces and lizards. Tracks are now thought to be distinct from geometric (non-figurative) and representational (figurative) art.

Franklin has since re-evaluated the model statistically (multivariate analysis) and has confirmed its existence as a distinct 'entity', overall, but with some local variations. The degree of homogeneity that has been demonstrated for engravings over such a wide area suggests what would be expected of open social networks among small founding populations of Australia. (Flood, 2004).

The sequence found is apparently an evolutionary progression of motifs, that is basically from non-figurative to figurative, from petroglyphs that were of Panaramitee style to figurative styles, both simple and complex, that occur in paintings and petroglyphs. Some common characteristics united styles that varied regionally, though the situation has been found to be very complex.  In some places pigmented art has been found to be contemporaneous with petroglyphs that are of Panaramitee style. An instance has been found in the Olary region which is believed to be of a painted Panaramitee style. These paintings have not been dated, but they show a greater proportion of tracks than is found in petroglyphs, the range of motifs being even more restricted than is found in petroglyphs. All the rock art in parts of Australia are of the Panaramitee style, one such area being the Olary Province, as well as much of central Australia. Only simple figurative art is found in other parts of the country, such as occurs in the Grampians. It is apparent that the 3 styles of Maynard are found in many different, varied combinations, some of which are contemporaneous. There doesn't appear to be much evidence of a simple chronological sequence from one to another, that is what she suggests (Flood, 2004).

According to Flood this leads to a deeper question 'does art actually evolve?' Cave art in Europe, that appeared suddenly about 30,000 BP, is usually thought of as a cultural explosion that occurred as fully modern humans brought it out of Africa, replacing all before them. The petroglyphs, in the form of lines and cupules, that were apparently made by Neanderthals. This non-figurative rock art is usually not regarded as art.

Flood suggests that art did in fact evolve. In Arnhem Land a continuous progression of rock art can been seen, from the Pleistocene to the present. In Europe early non-figurative engravings and hand stencils have been found beneath the animal paintings at a number of caves, such as Chauvet, by Jean Clottes.

In the art of central Australia there is both continuity and change. The making of petroglyphs has been observed in the 20th century (Mountford). Aboriginal people have stated that the engravings must always be made in the same way and of the same motifs as they were in the distant past. The additional motifs of modern structures such as cars and boats have been added, though the traditional motifs and styles were still being made. Aboriginal artists have claimed that the new motifs were given to them by ancestors in dreams.

The 'classic' Panaramitee tradition is centred on arid Australia, with the full range of motifs and the highest level of diversity. In the art of central Australia, in recent times at least, the 2 types of art are used for different purposes. The older, non-figurative, geometric art, is mostly connected with the sacred, being related to their religious life, and on sacred objects such as churinga and on rock surfaces. The figurative art is mostly secular, as seen as rock paintings as at Uluru.

A small range of designs occur in the geometric art, being used in many different arrangements. According to Munn, who studied the Walbiri artistic system, the 'motifs cover highly general categories, each of which includes a variety of different classes and phenomena'. A fire, a waterhole, fruit, a tree base, a cave, as well as other objects, can all be represented by a circle. It has even been used in recent times to represent a billy-can. A straight line can also have many meanings, such as a spear, a kangaroo's tail, a tree trunk, etc. Maps of the tribal territory are often illustrated , as well as showing the path taken by Dreamtime Ancestral Beings through the territory of the tribe. The maps or routs through a territory are representations using the circles, lines, tracks and crescents giving a view from above. The lines often represent paths between particular places, that are represented by a circle. The presence of an Ancestral Being is usually indicated by concentric circles.

The art system of the Walbiri allows the classes of meaning to be increased without the need to increase the number of motifs. Flood suggests that in the Panaramitee artistic system, the use of a small number of motifs over very long time periods would be understandably if it was similar to, or even ancestral to, the living cultural traditions present in central Australia.

Sources & Further reading

Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, J. B. Publishing


Discontinuous dreaming networks: analyses of variability in Australian pre-historic petroglyphs

Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated  30/09/2011
Journey Back Through Time
Experience Australia
Aboriginal Australia
National Parks
Photo Galleries
Site Map
                                                                                           Author: M.H.Monroe  Email:     Sources & Further reading