Wondjina Petroglyphs

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By Hunter Smith

General Overview

The Wandjina, or Wondjina, Petroglyphs are a collection of various Aboriginal rock art located in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. [1] These figures are depicted in large-scale paintings of either a complete human figure or simply a head and shoulders. The face of the Wandjina is its most distinctive feature as the eyes and nose are shown, usually in black, but the mouth is always absent. Decorative features are drawn around the head to depict a halo. If the body of a Wandjina is shown, the head and shoulders are separated from the rest by a horizontal line. The part of the body below the line is filled with thin red stripes and a solid black oval appears in the middle of the chest. [2] The style of these drawings has been interpreted to represent climatic events, the eyes, for example, having been linked to thunderstorms. The Wandjina paintings are often surrounded by other which are within the range of usual Aboriginal subjects - human beings, animals, snakes, plants and other motifs. [3] The style of these is very similar to that of the Wandjinas. This stylization connects to the role of the spirits within the belief system of the people of North Kimberley. The Wandjina were cloud and rain spirits which played an important part in the mythology of the aboriginal people of Kimberley. It was believed that these spirits responsible for the creation of the earth and its inhabitants in ancient times. The Wandjina were said to have returned to the spirit world, however, before they departed, they placed their own images upon the cave walls. The paintings would then be maintained and renewed by the clans living in the area as a symbol for the renewal of life brought by the rain. [2]

Wandjina Today

Today, Wandjina are still an active and integral role in the lives of the local people of northwestern Australia. Their images are still being painted by Indigenous Kimberley artists. These artists utilize a variety of media, including bark, hardboard and canvas. The paintings themselves are produced for both the national and international art market. [2] More intricate depictions are also carved out of pearl shells, on baobab nuts and painted onto objects such as baskets. Although art in this new media is produced largely for sale, there is still and intimately connection between the art style, the country and the landscape. There are still disputes about the ownership and right of the native Kimberley clans to the original Wandjina paintings. The heavy significance of the renewal of the Wandjina in the local culture leads to disagreements between these groups and the government about the alteration of what have been deemed as sites of historical significance. [2] The local clans maintain that they have an inalienable right to continue their cultural ceremonies with or without government approval since their ancestors are the ones who maintain the sites for generations.

Historical Context


The Wandjina Petroglyphs were initially discovered by European explorers in the 19th century. The paintings are located in the rugged, mountainous region of West Kimberly in Northwestern Australia. [4] The first individual to encounter the Aboriginal rock art was George Grey in 1838, who later published a collection of sketches of the figures. [5] Unfortunately, many of these sketches wrongly depicted the original works since Grey had “Europeanized” style of drawing. These incorrect details were taken to be accurate by later commentators and led to the belief that the original creators of the Wandjina had been foreign visitors to Australia. The suggested artists included Sumatrans, merchants from the Red Sea, Phoenician travelers and shipwrecked Japanese sailors among many others. [3] This controversy continued for many years, with new groups of originators being added to the list of possible artists. The strange features of Grey’s drawings were later found to have arisen from his misinterpretation of the peeling paint on the figures.

Establishing Authorship

One of the critical pieces in establishing Aboriginal authorship of the Wandjina paintings was the important role figures played in the local mythology. The local Aboriginal groups believed that the Wandjina were their spiritual ancestors and creators of the land and everything inhabiting it. It was the sacred duty of the leaders of these groups to repaint the Wandjinas each year at the end of the dry season in order to bring forth the wet season, which followed shortly afterwards. The spirits of the Wandjina were connected closely with rain and the fertility of both the land and its people. [5] The cave paintings and the ceremonies associated with them reflect the interdependence of the indigenous clans of West Kimberley. Each of the clan has a responsibility to replenish certain plants and animals in the natural world. This replenishment in turn assures that these resources are available to all people throughout the region. [4]

Pseudoarchaeological Narrative

While the context and history of the Wandjina Petroglyphs are widely understood in the academic community, there are some individuals that maintain the misguided belief that the paintings are of ancient, extraterrestrial travelers. The theory first emerged in 1968 when it was published in Chariot of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past by Swiss author Erich von Daniken. [6] Supporters of this concept isolate selective pieces of the Wandjina paintings as potential evidence. The irregular facial features and crown/halo of the petroglyphs are presented by these individuals as early human interpretations of alien physiology and technology. This leads to the proposal the Wandjina were actually wearing high-tech space suits and helmets in order to protect themselves from the dangers of intergalactic travel. [6] The equipment would also have been a valuable asset in exploring other worlds, including Earth, where the atmospheric conditions may have made it difficult for the Wandjina to survive otherwise, similar to the equipment utilized by modern astronauts when working outside of stable conditions. The narrative also incorporates elements of the mythology surrounding the Wandjina, which tie back into the idea of early human interaction with alien life. The Dreamtime stories of the aboriginal population include tales of Wandjina creating dream children, which if found within the dream turned into human children inside the bodies of women. [5] This is taken as evidence that humans interbreed with these alien beings leading to the development of hybrid which became the ancestors of modern humans. This would then explain the increase in human capability to produce complex works or both art and technology, since the genetic material of the Wandjina was more biologically advanced.

Advanced Weaponry

The Wandjina are also said to have great power over the weather and would bring forth great catastrophic events to punish individuals who displeased them and upset the balance of the land. [7] Believers of an alternate history propose that these events are actually the effects of extremely advanced weaponry used by the Wandjina in order to demonstrate their dominance over the early indigenous people of northwestern Australia. The magnificent events would appear to be the work of great and powerful spirits to early humans, who had little understanding of the science being presented to them. With multiple sources of evidence, critically deconstruct the pseudoarchaeological narrative:

Deconstructing the Pseudoarchaeological Narrative

The Weather and the Wandjina

The pseudoarchaeological narrative of the origin of the Wandjina Petroglyphs revolves around one major theme: the scientific ignorance of early human civilizations. The proposition that the Wandjina were actually aliens visiting from a far away galaxy can be deconstructed by looking at documented archaeological evidence and cultural context. Supporters of the ancient alien belief have established that the mythical powers of the Wandjina, which included abilities such as calling forth torrential rains, flooding, lightning and cyclones, were actually extremely advanced scientific weapons possessed by the travelers. Research into the topic has revealed that the connection between Wandjina and the weather, specifically rain, developed after a period of intense drought that affected the region nearly 4,000 years ago. [8] Evidence from a study done by researchers at the University of Wollongong in Australia indicates that the mega-drought spanned at least 1200 years. “Records shows the Kimberley region of northwest Australia underwent rapid environmental change in the mid-Holocene starting around 6300 yrs. B.P. when it transitioned from a tropical humid climate with intense summer monsoon to a much drier climate. This new climate regime was associated with increased anticyclonic circulation over central and northern Australia allowing a significant increase in dust transport from central Australia to the Kimberley” [8] The study also indicates that this period of intense dryness was “enhanced through positive feedbacks triggered by change in land surface condition and increased aerosol loading of the atmosphere leading to a weakening or failure of monsoon rains”. [8] The end of the mega-drought was between 3,800 and 4,000 B.P. which also lines up with the emergence of the Wandjina style of petroglyphs. The Aboriginal peoples’ reverence for the divine power of rain is an understandable progression in belief after a period of such extreme weather. The concept that the elements were controlled by mythical beings is a common theme that can be seen in different belief systems across the globe (Norse, Greek, Mayan, etc.). Given the native people of Kimberley’s understanding of the natural phenomenon and the limited information available, it would make sense for a group of individuals, who had struggled to survive in such hard conditions, to see the increase in rainfall as a divine gift and in turn begin to worship or revere these spiritual beings as saviors. This logical leap is understandable given the human understanding of weather and climate at the time and does not indicate any intervention by extraterrestrial visitors.

The Unique Style of the Wandjina

Another core pillar of the pseudoarchaeological narrative is the style in which the Wandjina are drawn. The interpretation that the unique style of the petroglyphs was due to the Wandjina wearing protective gear for space travel can be deconstructed from a progressive-artistic perspective. The artistic style of the Wandjina is believed to have developed from the Bradshaw style, which is another style of indigenous rock art found in the Kimberley region. Paintings done in the Bradshaw style “are small human figures, shown in profile, moving gracefully, carrying weapons and other objects, wearing headdresses and other ornaments.” [5] Their features differ from the Wandjina due to the presence of almost realistic body contours, with their limbs drawn in profile with correct musculature. [3] The change in style of rock art emerged around 3,800 to 4,000 B.P, after a millennium long drought devastated the western region of Australia. The less defined style of artistic depiction has ties to the connection between the Wandjina and certain weather conditions such as rain. The more abstract physiology is reminiscent of clouds and sky. When the Wandjina are drawn without a body it is said that they are traversing over land from the sky in order to bring forth the rain. [2] Since the Wandjina themselves were believed to be spirits who did not have a human form like divine beings from other religions, the fact that their representations were more closely related to natural phenomenon that human physiology makes sense, especially when considering the historical importance of natural events in the area.

Concluding the Narrative

Essentially, the narrative constructed by believers of pseudoarchaeology relies heavily on the misrepresentation of artifacts and culture. The logical leaps made under these false assumptions continue to be relevant due to their nature and the stubbornness of the individuals who support them. The defense of these individuals is again to claim ignorance as they believe that no one can truly know for certain if aliens indeed visited the planet. They stage their claims as only questions asking about what could be possible. This can be seen in works like von Daniken’s, where there are no concrete theories presented only vague wonderings and pieces linked together with childish logic. In the context of the Wandjina, there exists enough scientifically backed archaeological evidence to sufficiently disprove the major narrative ideas proposed by the pseudoarchaeological community on the origin of the paintings. They have been and still are a crucial part of the culture and history of the people of northern Australia. Simply reducing them to depictions of ancient extraterrestrials dismisses centuries of culture and human development.


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