Readers’ wildlife photos

April 6, 2023 • 8:15 am

Today our “wildlife” constitutes art: fascinating aboriginal rock art from Australia, in photos sent by reader Rodney Graetz. His notes are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them:

Australian Aboriginal Rock art

A rainbow revealed.  A creek has exposed a layered rock face of bright colours, from yellow orange to deep purple.  These rocks all contain iron compounds which, on exposure to the atmosphere, have been differently weathered to produce many coloured ochres:

Converting weathered rock to pigment requires first grinding it into a powder, then suspending it in water, blood, fat, or plant gums to make a thick (adhesive?) liquid for painting bodies, weapons, or other rocks:

Globally, ochre was evidently a valued pigment by humans, and our antecedents, with recorded use back 300 thousand years.  Nationally, two strands of evidence demonstrate Aboriginal Australians also placed a high value on ochre.  The first evidence is that wherever an exposure of high quality and colour ochre was found, quarrying, and even large scale mining, was done to extract it.  This is an open-face, multicolour ochre quarry located near Alice Springs, in the centre of the continent.  The digging would have been by hands and simple wooden tools.  Aboriginal Australians had no metal technology:

The second evidence is the effort and astonishing distances over which the extracted ochre was carried (on foot) and traded.  The carriers and traders would have been as this (colourised) man in carrying only a spear or two, to feed and defend himself.  Here is a historical description (1874) of the extraction and transport by a group of men from a highly regarded ochre site (Pukardu/Bookartoo) in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia to far away Western Queensland – about 400 km (250 mi) – and beyond.

“the party travels about twenty miles a day, and on arrival at the mine each member of it digs out his own ochre, mixes it with water, making it into loaves of about 20 lbs weight, which are dried.  Each man carries an average of 70 lbs of ochre, invariably on his head, and has to procure his own food; the party seldom resting a day while on the journey, which lasts usually from six to eight weeks.”:

What are the properties of ochre that made it so valuable to people?  I think the fundamental property is its principal colour – red.  Our 3-colour visual system enhances our ability to detect red objects.  Note how your eyesight is first attracted to, and then returned to, the tomatoes, and not the three different green objects.  The importance of the colour red is captured in many languages; most of which have a word for the colour red, with some languages having only two colour words – red and not-red.

The next most important ochre property is that, based on its red colour, imagination can easily make it represent, or symbolise, blood, and thereby relate to important emotional events of our lives, such as life and death.  This excavated skeleton is ‘Mungo Man’ (aka LM3), ritually buried 40,000 years ago, and sprinkled with more than 1 kilogram of ochre, the source of which was 200 km away.  So, ochre transport and trading is at least 40,000 years old.  What was the purpose of adding an appreciable amount of valuable ochre?  Did it signify status, or was it for an afterlife?  Why, today, do people throw flowers into graves?

The final and most important ochre property is the one that has driven fundamental changes in human culture.  In pre-literate cultures, ochre-based painting made non-verbal, self-expression possible and memorable for individuals, groups, and cultures.  Contemplate the message this artist wanted to say.  The large Wandjina figures are relatively modern, but in the lower left corner there is a small, partly overpainted Bradshaw figure with a possible age of 20,000 years.  It is very likely that this large light-coloured rock face has been a busy noticeboard for painters over thousands of years.

This style of ochre painting (Bradshaw or Gwion Gwion) is generally agreed to be the oldest, and in my opinion, the most finely executed.  I find them fascinating.  The ‘brushes’ were likely chewed sticks or grass stems.  Debate about the Who and When of the Gwion Gwion artists continues:

This style of painting is typical of rock overhangs and caves by being big and coarse, with finger-painted ochre figures.  Another similar site illustrates the simplicity of their production and information content:

A gallery of ‘I was here’ graffiti stencils.  Ochre must have been plentiful and painting skill not considered important.  Simply, the artist had a mouthful of ochre suspended in water that he sprayed over his hand or weapon.  Only the net structures appear to have been painted by finger or thick brush:

As traditional aboriginal life dissipated, so followed their painting, no longer important, no longer renewed.  This happened fastest in southern Australia, and slowest in tropical northern Australia, where the culture persisted, with paintings still being renewed into the 1960s.  To describe the painting quality and quantity shown here as vibrant is an understatement.  The blue paintings in this crowded site used a store-bought laundry powder (‘Reckitt’s Blue’):

Another example of extraordinary artistic skill.  The pigments are still ochres, the brushes were chewed sticks, and the fine detail very impressive.  Done on boulder, it is no longer renewed, but non-Aboriginal technology – a small silicone-bead boundary – preserve it by diverting rainwater:

Today’s reality is that ochre-based rock art is dead, as this example shows.  It is now unwanted, unrenewed, and becoming lifeless:

This is what has replaced the ochre-only painting.  Vibrant in colour and design, it was catalysed in 1971 by an Art teacher, who introduced synthetic paints and colours to an Aboriginal community with wildfire success.  It is a remarkable story.  The ‘dot’ style is to hide secret mythological (‘Dreaming’) components of a story.  We purchased this painting – by a female painter – and it never fails to lift our mood.

Female Western Desert artists at work out in the ‘bush’, inspired by the harsh, arid landscapes they were born into (and still love), and by their ‘Dreaming’ (Tjukurpa).  Back in ochre-only times, women were forbidden to paint, or even see the men-only galleries.  In some desert groups, the punishment was death.  Now, with acrylic paints, they have both creative and financial independence.  Their clothing reflects their sense of utility, style, and freedom.  My understanding is that now, women painters are more artistically interesting, skilled, and thereby, more financially successful, than are the men – a very welcome change!  I borrowed four (black-edged) photos to complete this story.

10 thoughts on “Readers’ wildlife photos

  1. The carriers and traders would have been as this (colourised) man in carrying only a spear or two, to feed and defend himself.

    Pack light, move fast, and live off the land as you go has always been my motto — though my motto is more metaphorical than what the Aboriginal Aussies practiced.

    Great post, Rodney.

  2. It is good we have as much information as we do about the aboriginal cultures, given the efforts to eradicate them. The petroglyphs are fascinating, thank you.

  3. Thanks for this fascinating post. I’ve never given much thought about ochre, but you provided a fascinating lesson. That piece of art would lift my spirits too- very beautiful.

  4. creek has exposed a layered rock face of bright colours, from yellow orange to deep purple. These rocks all contain iron compounds which

    I’d suspect some manganese in the more purple bands too. But the main colourant would still be iron.
    It’s not an issue for the Aboriginals, but manganese deficiency can be an issue for some crop diseases.

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