The Kimberley region of Australia is vast, remote, barely inhabited and strewn with ancient art. Jo Lennan takes a tour with a local elder to work out what it tells us about our distant past

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2011

I’ve come to see a painting. To reach it, I climb up the rocky outcrop, use the crook of a tree for a foothold to cross a crevasse, then edge out along a ledge. Above is a wide blue sky, below is a tangle of gum trees and grass. Only rock relieves the endless flatness of the land. The terrain is strewn with sandstone, either piles of it, rising up violently orange against the sky, or solitary boulders that seem to have stopped mid-tumble to nowhere. Standing on the ledge, I face a more-or-less smooth expanse of rock face that has been used as an artist’s canvas. The paint is a deep mulberry-coloured stain. The artist, it’s clear, had a way with a line—I’m looking at a tableau of a lithe human couple, shown in crisp silhouette. There’s a delicate flair in the profiled forms and headdresses of the pair, who seem to saunter out of the rock from a forgotten Eden.

Who are these people, I wonder, and who immortalised them here in Australia’s far north-west? It’s a question that intrigues many people who set eyes on them, including Sam Lovell (pictured below), an Aboriginal elder who spent decades droving cattle through the savannah and river-gorge country of the Kimberley region, and who has led the way to these paintings. His mother was Aboriginal, while the line of his pastoralist father goes back to the Lovells of Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire. An agile 77, Sam is now a director of an outfit researching the untold reserves of rock art here. “They’re known as Gwion Gwion,” he explains. Gwion is the name of a bird that, according to oral tradition, pecked the rock with such force that its blood sprang forth, then painted the dainty figures with its bloodied beak and feather. The myth dovetails neatly with current theories on the subject: such fineness, it’s thought, must have been made with quills.

That’s how it looks to me, too, but my eye is untrained. I’ve come to visit the Kimberley from “over east”, the populous Pacific strip, stirred by curiosity about the remoter reaches of my own country. In fact, I realise that this is the remotest place I have been on earth. Once here, I can feel the force of what these wilds are hiding: a trove of art spanning as many millennia as we’re able to measure, and beyond. To follow the gleeful Lovell is like skipping through the ages, the blades of spinifex grass be damned. You can see, in the rock, the layers of the ages. At one outcrop after another, new paintings are layered over the old, and those over older ones still. Sometimes you see the great haloed spirit beings of the most recent artistic epoch, the Wandjina, which is still alive today, glaring out over the vastly older Gwion Gwion paintings.

So how old are we talking, really? There’s the rub: so ancient is the paint that often it has ceased to be paint at all. What looks like a mulberry stain has actually become part of the rock itself, which makes it both very old and very hard to date. Add the fact that this is figurative art, and you start to raise some heady questions—mysteries of the kind that hijack the lives of those who try to solve them. Might this tradition of painting be the oldest we have that portrays the human form? More than that, could the Kimberley’s mysterious paintings be that rare bird of science—something that changes the picture we have of our common human past?

Getting at the past is an arduous business, particularly in the Kimberley. In an area of land that’s three times the size of England, and larger than California, precisely one road through is sealed. The land is riven by gorges that, in the wet season, rage with torrents. Colonists took hold here relatively late—the name Kimberley came only in 1880 (John Wodehouse, then the British secretary of state for the colonies, took the name from his Norfolk estate and became the first Earl of Kimberley). Expeditions are still a logistical challenge: supplies must be carried in, and contact with the outside world is at the caprice of a satellite phone. Just getting to our point of departure took two full days of driving, chasing the dust clouds thrown up by road trains as they turned from a blood-orange blush to a mauve-ish, iron-rich tint. 

“This country reclaimed the land,” says Lovell, in his old-timer cowboy cadence, as we bounce along tracks that, in the pastoral heyday of his youth, led to outlying cattle runs. “You can clear it all and it comes back. Two or three years, no trouble at all.”

The terrain is so dense that the first European to stumble upon the Gwion Gwion paintings was unable to direct others to the place. In April 1891 a leaseholder called Joseph Bradshaw made a careful journal entry, noting that these extraordinary works lay in the secluded chasms of “a great pile of immense rocks on the west side of the river”. It took more than a century for anyone to find the site he meant, because Bradshaw—in the area of his own lease—had got the wrong river. The man who made the re-discovery in 1997 was Grahame Walsh, the leading researcher into the Kimberley’s art. An ardent amateur, Walsh trod his own tortuous path and produced sumptuous photo-filled tomes with the backing of private patrons, while fuelling quad-bike expeditions on pseudoephedrine pills and tinned tuna. This bent for extremes took its toll. When a university gave him a doctorate in 2007, one examiner commented that “Mr Walsh has devoted himself to a study that has defeated or been the ruin of many.” He might have added that it had more or less ruined Walsh, too; a few weeks later he was dead.

Some latter-day amateurs have come in Walsh’s wake. One of them, who shares our campsite by a creek, has been coming to the spot for so long that he’s been given a “blackfella” name, Munyanji. Formerly a Canberra bureaucrat, Munyanji lives here for half the year, spending his days searching out rock art. It’s an indication of just how much of it there is: you feel as if you can’t turn a corner without stumbling on something significant. You end up either blasé or obsessed.

The real work is now being done by scientists, with aficionados helping raise funds. One of these, a philanthropist from Melbourne called Maria Myers, became a staunch supporter of Grahame Walsh after he gave a talk at her daughter’s school. With her husband Allan, a barrister, she has since bought three art-rich pastoral leases to serve as hubs for research, and she sits with Sam Lovell on the Kimberley Foundation board. Decades of work by rock-art researchers—Myers’s daughter Cecile now among them—have revealed more of the story of these otherworldly artworks. But there’s a hitch of a different kind: time itself is nearly as impenetrable as the land. It’s hard to carbon date a painting when the pigment has long since become rock, as there’s no carbon left to date.

For the Kimberley’s latest and continuing Wandjina painting tradition—still practised by Aborigines living here today, and named after the haloed spirit-beings it often depicts—a breakthrough came when researchers discovered a painting done in beeswax rather than pigment. This surprise finding, at roughly 3,600 years old, instantly tripled estimates of the age of Wandjina culture. For the older Kimberley art, and ancient Australia in general, the problem runs deeper still. Scientists call it the “carbon barrier”: the point at which the radiocarbon dating method reaches its limit. In tropical conditions such as these, it seems to be about 40,000 years, even when you can lay your hands on the carbon. Only with newer methods have scientists begun—in fits and some false starts—to push that horizon back.

Suppose you take just one grain of sediment or sand: minerals within it recall, by the level of radiation absorbed while the grain was buried, when it last saw the light of the sun. Optical luminescence dating is a way of gauging the time that has elapsed since that moment. It was recently used to show that a fossilised mud-wasp nest over a Gwion Gwion painting was more than 17,500 years old—the same age as the cave art at Lascaux in France. At sites in Arnhem Land, which lies to the east of the Kimberley, optical luminescence dating of pieces of sediment found around artefacts is giving ages of up to 60,000 years. Luminescence dates are outlier findings, as scientists are quick to warn: the numbers aren’t set in stone, so to speak. Nonetheless, in terms of how we measure the far-distant past, we’re in the midst of a revolution, and it goes well beyond the Kimberley.