Mowanjum Rock Paintings and Burial Caves

Article serving World Travellers since 1983 with small group educational tours for senior couples and mature solo travellers exploring the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Article about Aboriginal rock art and burial caves as part of the collection of a series of Aboriginal articles.

24 Dec 21 · 7 mins read

Kimberley Rock Paintings and Burial Caves

By Marco Stojanovik

The fascinating Kimberley Region of Western Australia – over 400, 000 square kilometres of pristine wilderness spanning Australia’s north west from Broome to Darwin – is home to thousands of ancient Australian rock art sites, believed to be the world’s oldest examples of rock art.

Particularly prominent is the rock art of the North Kimberley Rock Art of the Mowanjum people, who consist of the Ngarinyin, Worrorra and Wunambal language groups. These Aboriginal art works depicting Wandjina Ancestors and totems of local groups, as well as stencils of hands and feet, can be found across the landscape. They remain on rock walls and shelters, protected for thousands of years against weathering and lichen. These locations hold special spiritual significance for the people and have also been used as burial caves for their dead.

Each rock painting was done with a full palette of natural colours, particularly reds, yellows, black and white. Pigments were made form natural materials, such as clay, ochre, and powered charcoal, painted with brushes made from plants and with the people’s hands. Overtime the pigments penetrated and fused with the rocks becoming part of them forever.

Set amongst the stunning scenery of the Kimberley – river gorges, boab trees, sandstone formations, waterfalls and pristine beaches – the art-filled caves are a testament to an ancient civilisation that remains vital today and are a must see on any tour of the Kimberley.

Join Odyssey Traveller on our 14-day small group tour of the Kimberley, during which we’ll visit Cape Leveque, The Bungles, Bell Gorge, Mitchell Plateau, Halls Creek, and more in the dry season. We’ll also explore the rich history of the region, with a fascinating settler, Indigenous and multi-cultural past. Read on for more details about the Mowanjum rock paintings and burial caves, intended as background reading for the Kimberley tour.

Much of the information used in this article is sourced from J.R.B Love’s Kimberley People: Stone Age Bushmen of Today, 1936, as well as sources linked to throughout.

Windjana Gorge on the Lennard River, Kimberley, Western Australia

Wandjina Rock Art

The well-known Wandjina art of the Kimberley region is unique to the Mowanjum people. On rock walls across their country, paintings done in black charcoal, red and yellow ochre, and white clay depict human-like figures known as the Wandjina Ancestors.

The Wandjina are believed to be the supreme creators of the landscape and its inhabitants, who continue to govern potent forces like the weather as well as human behaviour. They were the first men who came from the clouds and the sea and travelled the land by routes now known by various landmarks, such as natural rocks, artificially placed rocks, pools in the streams, and bottle trees.

At the end of his journey, each Wandjina would paint its image on a cave wall before entering a nearby waterhole. From there, they continue to manage the creation of new life.

The Wandjina are depicted with huge dark eyes but no mouth. It is said that this is because the presence of a mouth would make them too powerful. They are also often depicted in elaborate headdresses or surrounded by a halo, each representing clouds and lightning, a reflection of the Wandjina’s ability to bring the monsoonal rain. It is believed that as long as the picture of a Wandjina remains in a cave, rain will continue to fall in that locality at the proper time of year.

Aboriginal Art of Wandjinas on the Barnett River, Mount Elizabeth Station/ Graeme Churchard / CC BY 2.0

Local men, descendants of the Wandjina, who have been granted permission through Aboriginal law, have always cared for and repainted the Wandjina images in each rock art site. This is to revive and reaffirm their spiritual energy and ensure the coming of the monsoon rains. If any unauthorised artist attempts to repaint their images, it is believed the Wandjina will punish them, drowning them in a flood or striking them dead with lightning.

The first Wandjina are believed to have been painted 4000 years ago, and the figures continue to be painted today – making it the world’s oldest continuous sacred painting movement. Today the figures continue to be painted by the artists of the Mowanjum Art and Culture Centre outside Derby.

Totem Art

Other paintings in the caves of the Kimberley are of totems of local groups. A totem is a natural object, plant or animal that is inherited by the large group members of an Aboriginal clan or family as their spiritual emblem. Totems define peoples’ roles and responsibilities, and their relationships with each other and creation.

Each local group occupying a distinctive area of country has a number of totems, with one regarded as the principal totem of the members of that group. Girls and boys inherit their totems from their fathers’ territory. When girls marry, they leave their ancestral territory and go to the land of their husbands, but they retain the same totems that they acquired by inheritance at birth.

All are responsible for the stewardship of their totem: the flora and fauna of their area as well as the stewardship of the sacred sites attached to their area. This stewardship consists not only of the management of the physical resources, but also the spiritual management of all the ceremonies necessary to ensure adequate rain and food resources at the change of each season.

The purpose of the paintings is to ensure the continuance of the objects depicted. As long as a depiction of an animal or plant remains in a cave, it is believed that the species will continue to flourish and increase in that district.

rock art paining
Rock Art Paintings

Hands and Feet Stencils

Some of the earliest rock art in the Kimberley region are stencils of hands and feet. They were made by placing the hand or foot on a smooth rock and blowing a mixture of white clay, water, and animal fat from the mouth over the hand or foot. When the hand or foot was removed, the outline was left on the rock. Often the stencils were used to assert tribal status or lay claim to territory.

Hands are the dominant theme in the stencil art and large adult hands are by far the most common. The hands from earlier art periods are more rounded and stockier at the tips, suggesting very large, robust individuals. In later periods, the fingers are more elegant and tapering.

Mutilated hands are also numerous, with stencils missing a single to several fingers and sometimes even thumbs. These are believed to be genuine amputations.

Painted handprint stencilled on a rock

Burial Caves

Burials and other means of disposing of the dead are significant practices for Aboriginal people all over Australia. They provide important physical and spiritual connections with the land, culture and their past. The final places where the dead are laid to rest hold great importance to the people.

Historically, in the Kimberley region, the bodies of men, and in some areas also of women, were first exposed on an elevated structure (such as a scaffold or platform in a tree) until the flesh disintegrated. This practice is known amongst anthropologists as Platform Exposure. Afterwards, the bodies were deposited in a totemic rock shelter ossuary as their final resting place. The very young and the very old were not accorded this honour, instead buried in the ground.

In 1936, Love described the burial practices of the Worrorra people tribe of the Mowanjum community of the north-east of the Kimberley. Here, Platform Exposure was regarded as a practice of grand importance, restricted to the bodies of men of active adult status, the most important class of society.

The body of the deceased man would be placed on a platform of large tree branches and be left there for some months as the flesh disintegrated. They would then be taken down and painted with red ochre, with the long bones of the leg (Worora) and arms (Warramunga) wrapped in neatly bound paperbark parcels for special attention.

The Worora would then wrap and carry the remainder of the skeleton to a painted cave, with which the deceased had totemic affiliation, the place where his totem fellows will all eventually come to rest. The parcel would be deposited in the middle of the cave, or on a ledge in the cave, or buried in the earth in front of the cave. The long bones would eventually follow.

Overtime the bark parcel would rot and the bones would fall out. At this point the bones were not given any special care. The man’s spirit, however, is supposed to dwell there in the cave forever guarding the paintings.

Odyssey Traveller’s Tour of the Kimberley

Boabs and red rocks in the Kimberley region of Australia. Shot at the Windjana Gorge along the Gibb River Road, Western Australia.

Odyssey Traveller visits significant sites of indigenous rock art on our Tour of the Kimberley. Known as the place where the ‘red dirt meets the sea’, the must-see Kimberley region melds the quintessential outback Australia of red sand and rock formations with a stunning Indian Ocean coast to rival the Great Barrier Reef.

Our outback tours begin in Broome, home to beautiful Cable Beach, Roebuck Bay and Gantheaume Point, before winding up the Kimberley Coast, through the Dampier Peninsula and Cape Leveque, Yampi Sound, and Cygnet Bay. We then head inland from the Indian Ocean on the Gibb River Road, stopping off at beautiful Bell Gorge and Windjana Gorge National Park, home to a significant population of freshwater crocodiles (also found in Lake Argyle, near the Northern Territory border). We make a day tour to remote Purnululu National Park in the East Kimberley, where we take a scenic flight over Bungle Bungle Range, Cathedral Gorge, Echidna Chasm, and Piccaninny Creek.

Our Kimberley tour also stops in at El Questro, a former cattle station converted into a wilderness park centred around Emma Gorge, Chamberlain Gorge, and the Pentecost River. El Questro offers a range of accommodations, from tented cabins by the gorge to luxury suites in the former El Questro station.

Odyssey Traveller has been serving world travellers since 1983. Like all our tours, our Kimberley outback tours come with a difference: an authentic and culturally informed travel experience, that goes beyond the tourist sites in favour of drawing out the hidden histories of our destinations. Our guides are chosen for their local expertise, and we move in genuinely small groups: usually 6-12 per tour. Our tours are all-inclusive, encompassing accommodation, attraction entries, and transport.

If this sounds ideal, why not join our tour of the Kimberley, or take a look at our other Australia and outback tours?

Articles about the Kimberley and Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit to the Kimberley:

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