A critique of Grahame Walsh’s publication on the Gwion Gwion rock art of the Kimberly region

 

In 1994 amateur archaeologist Grahame Walsh published Bradshaws: Ancient Rock Paintings of North-West Australia under Edition Limitee publishers, Switzerland. Patrons for his research and publication include members of the Myers and Murdoch families, as well as various wealthy pastoralists who own land on which the rock art is located.[1] The Bradshaw rock art, named after pastoralist Joseph Bradshaw who ‘discovered’ them in 1891, or Gwion Gwion as they are known by the local Aboriginal people, are located in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. They are spread across 50, 000 square kilometres within 100, 000 sites. The rock art depicts slender figures, heavily adorned with elaborate headdresses, tasselled garments and armbands, surrounded by weaponry, tools and fauna. Bacteria and fungi now cover the rock art, making accurate dating impossible. Thermoluminescent dating carried out on mud wasp nest which covered one of the artworks revealed a minimum date of 17,500 years, however estimates based upon depicted mega flora and fauna suggest an age of up to 70,000 years. This would make the Gwion Gwion the oldest existing rock art in the world.

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Walsh is a self confessed ‘rock art fanatic,’ and ‘amateur archaeologist,’ who received a basic level of education in the Queensland school system and no formal training in university institutions. Walsh’s publication shows signs of limited research; selective use of sources, including a wilful disregard for Aboriginal oral histories as a valid historical source; contradictory evidence; and opinion unsubstantiated by factual evidence. Walsh argued that the Bradshaw rock art of the west Kimberley was of such a superior aesthetic to other Aboriginal rock art, that it must have been created by an advanced culture which predated Aboriginal occupation of Australia. He argued that a superior race of people, most likely Asiatic in origin, migrated to Australia and established an advanced society and culture, which they recorded through rock art.[2] The ‘Bradshaw culture,’ he states, disappeared sometime before Aboriginal occupation of the area began, and is “now

most likely sunken beneath the rising sea levels” like the lost civilisation of Atlantis.[3]

 

Walsh’s hypothesis displays an outdated colonialist attitude of attributing ‘superior’ cultural elements to peoples with fair complexions. It echo’s a theory published in 1889 by ethnologist John Mathews in which he argued that Australia was colonised by Aboriginal people who were subsequently invaded by the Dravidians from India and the Malays, people of higher intelligence. These people Mathews argued, were responsible for ‘superior’ cultural traits and were of a “much fairer complexion” than the Aboriginal Australians.[4] In 1904 ethnologist Alfred Howitt suggested that these migrants were a “low form of the Caucasian race.”[5] In 1899 evolutionary biologist Richard Semon wrote that the rock art of the Kimberley’s were possibly “the work of shipwrecked Europeans.”[6]

 

Walsh’s publication also reflects colonialist attitudes and theories regarding racial hierarchies and capabilities. In 1827 Augustus Earle stated that Aboriginal people were “the last link in the chain of existence which unites man with the monkey.”[7] These theories stressed the ‘simplicity’ and ‘primitiveness’ of Aboriginal people and their culture in attempt to justify and legitimise the European invasion of Australia and the dispossession of land. Walsh similarly argues that due to the ‘primitiveness’ of Aboriginal culture, the ‘Bradshaw’ or Gwion Gwion artworks must have been created by another culture and that Indigenous peoples therefore have no rights over the land. Why then did Walsh receive such a positive reception in the media and general public if his hypothesis clearly relayed outdated, racist and colonialist assumptions about Aboriginal people?

 

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Both Walsh’s hypothesis and the media hysteria it generated was reflective of the political atmosphere in which he published. In 1992 the Mabo vs. Queensland case overturned the legal fiction of Terra Nullius, making Indigenous Native Title claims possible. The ruling generated public hysteria in which it was misbelieved that Aboriginal people could literally claim suburban backyards or agricultural lands essential to the nation’s economy. Walsh’s theory feed into public hysteria and misconceptions, providing ‘evidence’ that Native Title legislation was illegitimate. Indeed, during a High Court Native Title case, Walsh gave advice to the lawyers for the Pastoralists and Graziers Association which was opposing the claim, arguing that contemporary Aboriginal people bear no substantial relationship, genetically or culturally to this ‘mystery race’ and therefore had no claim over land.[8] That Walsh’s hypothesis received positive responses from the general public and media is perhaps a sad reflection of societies inability to reconcile with the past and accept responsibility for current injustices.

 

The local Aboriginal people have issued numerous public statements discussing the importance of the rock art to their Dreaming and culture. In 2003 they won a Native Title claim to the rock art, in which the High Court of Australia recognised the Aboriginality of the artworks. Various academics such as Lynette Russell, Ian McNiven, Michael Barry, Peter White and Darrell Lewis have recently published articles in which the Indigeneity of the artworks and their strong linkages to other art styles across Australia has been demonstrated. That the origins of the Gwion Gwion rock art are still disputed, reflects how far society has yet to go, before reconciling with the past.


[1] Ian Wilson. “History, Politics and the Bradshaws of the Kimberly” Studies in Western Australian History Vol. 26, 2010.

[2]Grahame Walsh. Bradshaws: Ancient Rock Paintings of North-West Australia. (Geneva: Edition Limitee Switzerland. 1994).

[3] Grahame Walsh. ABC, Australian Story. Rock Heart. Transcript 14th October 2002. Available at http://www.abc.net.au/austory/transcripts/s696261.htm.

[4] J. Mathew “The Cave Paintings of Australia, their Authorship and Significance” Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.Vol.23. 1894 p.338

[5] A.W. Howitt. The Native Tribes of South-East Australia. (London: Macmillan, 1904) p.32

[6]R. Semon. In the Australian Bush and on the Coast of the Coral Sea. (London: Macmillan, 1899) p.236

[7] Augustus Earle cited in Atkinson, Alan. The Europeans in Australia, Vol 1. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1997. Pg 14

[8] Anthony Redmond. “‘Alien Abductions’ Kimberly Aboriginal Rock-Paintings, and the Speculation about Human Origins: on some Investments in Cultural Tourism in the Northern Kimberly” Australian Aboriginal Studies Vol.2. 2002. 

Pictures sourced from http://www.lonelyplanet.com 

 

Further Reading:

Lewis, Darrell. “Bradshaws: The View from Arnhem Land” Australian Archaeology No.44. (1997)

Barry, M. “I would sooner not call them Bradshaw’s” BA Honours thesis, University of Sydney. (1997)

Barry, M. and White, P. “Exotic Bradshaw’s or Australian Gwoin: an Archaeological Test” Australian Aboriginal Studies (2004)

McNiven, I. and Russel, L. “Strange paintings and mystery races: Kimberly rock-art, diffusionism and colonialist constructions of Australia’s Aboriginal past” Antiquity (Vol.71 No.274: December 1997)

Pettigrew, J. “Discovery of living pigments in Bradshaw rock art” Aboriginal Art News (April 2011) http://www.aboriginalartnews.com.au/2011/01/discovery-of-living-pigments-in-bradshaw-rock-art.php

 

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4 comments on “A critique of Grahame Walsh’s publication on the Gwion Gwion rock art of the Kimberly region

  1. sa41321782 says:

    Fascinating to read how the furore surrounding the Mabo case led people to give any credence to Walsh and his weak racial hierarchies suppositions. The ‘sunken civilisation’ hypothesis should immediately discount any views he might have on the subject. I’m actually surprised he didn’t propose ‘alien beings’ as the Gwion Gwion rock art painters.

  2. awebber1 says:

    Your post was very fascinating to read. I think anybody in our society today looking at those photos would immediately say or recognise them as Aboriginal artwork. To have somebody claim that they have been created by some group of people other than Aborigines, may be highly offensive to some but also quite an interesting claim to others. In history we can read about many civilisations that lived and died on the same lands, and I often wonder the same thing about Australia. It is not impossible that other peoples have lived in Australia before or simultaneously as Aborigines, as is the case in the Americas. That being said, your post makes me curious about such a topic and I’d be interested to know more about why Walsh believed his own claims and also more about why other people believed his claims to be false. Great topic!

  3. Hi Amelia,

    Finally, I get to read (even a compressed version of) your thesis!
    It must have been amazing for Bradshaw to stumble across this great trove of art which many in the area would still hold to be of ancestral significance. It is a shame, however, that the natural course of events have lost such a find to us forever.

    It is also a shame that such a significant work has been created by such a lay person. Something of this import should probably have been co-authored by one better placed to address local oral histories, provide the necessary backing evidence, or factually-substantiated opinion. But so many volumes available even to and by university-trained scholars contain those same errors- this is what peer-reviewed journals are for!

    It is interesting to note your comments the colonialist attitudes that were reflected in the work. This, I suppose, would also be a product of Walsh’s lack of training. But to comment on contemporary remarks from Bradshaw’s time, this just shows a lack of knowledge of the original inhabitants of the area – why is it not possible for those who created this art to have done so? Why does it have to have been someone else? Ridiculous!

    A couple of errors that should not have appeared in a 300-level work – some missing Oxford commas, a misplaced apostrophe, but overall, you come away wanting to burn every copy of the Bradshaws guide and tell him to start again!

    An excellent inclusion of the further reading guide made this post worth the wait! Thanks, Amelia!

    peterg

  4. an academic says:

    I would like to correct one comment in these posts. Grahame Walsh had two PhD’s in archeology, one from Melbourne university and one from Griffith university – one was awarded on books and other peer-reviewed papers he had written, and other was based on a PhD thesis submitted.

    He was certainly controversial, but he did have some standing among some well respected archeologists, from a university academic.

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