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Female Artists:

The Unrecognized Factor in Sacred Rock Art Production

Claire E. Smith
Sacred rock art sites and, occasionally, rock art sites in
general have traditionally been associated with male
ceremonial activity. The basic contention has been that
the execution of a c r ~ rock art could only be carried out
by initiated persons and, as initiated persons were
invariably male, it has been assumed that only males
painted sacred rock art (see Spencer and Gillen
1899[1968]:614; Elkin 1933:462; Love 1936:24; Capell
1939:388; Schulz 1956:42; Crawford 1968:37; Edwards
and Guerin 1969:15; Gould 1969:154; Bagglin and
Mullins 1987:26; Walsh 1988:14).
This view is based upon the ubiquitous assumption
that women and children are the uninitiated members of
Australian Aboriginal societies who are denied full
access to the religious sphere (see Roheim 1933:207;
Bates 1938:28,125; Elkin 1939:xxx; Warner 1958:26;
Maddock 1982: 139). Frequently the term sacred is
applied solely to rituals from which women were
excluded and, as Berndt (1981: 188) points out, the very .
presence of a woman can be taken to indicate the secular
or profane nature of an activity. This notion imbues the
study of Aboriginal ritual communication from the
Victorian era to the present day.
When the existence of women's secret ceremonies
has been acknowledged it has been assumed that, as the
only province of religion open to women was that
concerning fears or anxieties, women's ceremonies
revolved around such issues as 'love magic' or
physiological crises. The consensus view is expressed by
White (1978:40) in her assertion that women's
ceremonies dealt with women's concerns but that men's
ceremonies dealt with the concerns of society as a whole.
This view is epitomised by Maddock (1982:139) in his
classic dichotomy between the 'broad, cohesive and
impersonal themes' of men's cults and the 'narrow,
divisive and personal interests' of women's.
Such a view has recently been challenged by a
number of researchers whose work has been conducted
within the growing theoretical interest in the study of
gender that emerged in the 'seventies and 'eighties. In
particular, Berndt (1981), Bell (1983) and Hamilton
(1980) have stressed the rights, responsibilities and
powers invested in Aboriginal women.
Bell's (1983) Daughters of the Dreaming
demonstrates a breadth of female ceremonial activity in
Central Australia That includes the painting of sacred
objects, the maintenance of sacred stone arrangements,
the decoration and painting of ritual poles, the ritual use
of sign language, and the execution of sand drawings and
body painting.
Bell's (1983:182) contention that female ceremonial
life in Central Australia has the same mythological basis
as men's is supported by Hamilton (1980: 15) and Layton
(1986:45), both of whom contend that women and men
develop different aspects and events within the same
narrative structure relating to ancestral traditions. An
artistic expression of this may be seen in the content of
recent Western Desert acrylic paintings (see Anderson
and Dussart 1988:122). The argument that both sexes
share a religion in common is also supported by Kaberry
(1939:190) for the Kimberley.
Kaberry's (1939:208;228) assertion that both men
and woinen in this region share ritual responsibilities
involved in the increase of species is consistent with
Piddington's (1932:391) observation that increase
ceremonies for nalgoo in Wonguru country near Cape
Bossut were carried out entirely by women 'under the
direction of men' . This sharing between the sexes of
responsibility for species perceived as critical to group
survival has also been recorded by Sharp (1934:30) for
the Yir Yiront in Cape York, and by Hamilton (1980: 15)
for Central Australia.
The fulfilment of such responsibilities is obviously
inconsistent with the narrow and particularistic focus of
women's ceremonies proferred by researchers such as
Maddock. In addition to this, I would argue that
women's ceremonies that do focus upon sex, procreation
and/or fertility have considerable import for society at
large, not solely for women. The secret ceremonies of
both men and w_omen benefit society as a whole through
46 Rock Art and Prehistory
establishing economic and spiritual security for all. It is
also clear that in many parts of Australia men have
ceremonies concerned with 'love magic' (see Spencer
and Gillen 1899[1968]:549; Strehlow 1964:54; Love
1936:99; Bemdt and Bemdt 1982:108) and this, in fact,
seems to be one of the least dichotomous aspects of
Aboriginal ceremonial life.
Reassessment of women's role in ceremonial activity
leads naturally to reassessment of women's role as rock
artists. If women have a subset of Aboriginal culture of
hitherto unrecognized significance, are they not also
likely to have responsibility for a subset of paintings, and
of rock paintings, within that culture?
This is the case in the Victoria River district, where
Darrell Lewis and Deborah Rose (pers. comm.) were
taken to several women' s sites from which men were
either restricted or subject to various restrictions. These
sites contain art which is primarily figurative and not
readily distinguishable in style from that of other rock art
sites, includmg men's sites. Lewis and Rose (1988:65)
contend that most rock art sites in the Victoria River
district are foci of Dreaming power and knowledge and
that control of sites is implemented through gender and
age restrictions upon access to information, or to the
sites themselves, or to both.
There is very little retouching of paintings in this
region. Most of the rock art is regarded by Aboriginal
people as a product of the Dreaming. It is the Dreaming
- not the work of men and women (Lewis and Rose
1988:53). There is, therefore, no way of discovering who
did the art from the Aborigines themselves.
A little to the east, at Yingalarri waterhole on
Willeroo Station, Josephine Flood, Robin Frost and
Bruno David have recently been working, in conjunction
with the linguist Francesca Merlan, with a number of
Wardaman men and women. These Aboriginal informants
state that both men and women had and have the right to
retouch certain paintings. At site 1 they make no
distinction between paintings which could be retouched
by men and those which could be retouched by women.
An interesting aspect of the work done by this team
is the nature of the questions posed. Flood asked a series
of questions as follows:
Q: Who can paint?
A: Anyone.
Q: Can men paint?
A: Yes, anyone.
Q: Can women paint?
A: Yes, anyone.
The principal informant was an Aboriginal man
called Blucher and, a little later (the existence of female
rock artists was not a primary focus of the questioning),
Flood turned from Blucher to particular Aboriginal
women in the group to ask them if they had a right to
paint. The answers were affirmative, though not all had
a right to paint at that particular site.
During the same interview Blucher accosted a female
child who touched a painting, warning her that this action
could cause sickness. It would appear, then, that at least
some of the paintings at this site are considered potent
and potentially dangerous. I would argue that this is a
more accurate measure of the sacredness of rock art than
the mere exclusion of females from a site.
Whilst children of both sexes were prohibited from
touching the paintings at this site, a woman visiting from
the adjacent territory of the Djauan also refrained from
touching the art on the grounds that she was a stranger
and that it might make her sick, too. As she was
Blucher's wife, it would appear that marriage does not
automatically provide rights to, and protection from, rock
art. Local Wardaman women were, however, quite free
to touch the art, as were the men.
The significant aspect of Flood's questioning is that
if she had only asked the first two questions (i.e. if she
had not specifically asked if women had a right to paint)
she could easily have interpreted the replies as indicating
that there was no social division between men who
painted and men who did not paint. Such interpretations
are common throughout the literature (e.g. Edwards and
Guerin 1969: 15).
The limitations of questioning based on traditional
androcentric assumptions can be perceived in
Mountford's work on rock art at Uluru. He records rock
art at the women's sacred site of Pulari (Mountford's
Bulari) without considering the possibility that the art
may have been executed by women rather than men.
During his 1940 expedition to Central Australia he called
the older Aboriginal men into the Pulari cave and asked
a number of questions around the subject of whether the
art represented hunting magic. When he finally asked the
question directly the informants replied in the negative
and Mountford concluded that the art had no magical
significance (Mountford 1940:485-7). In 1960 an
informant suggested that the art depicted Meta catching
the emu (Mountford 1960:517). This informant, a man
named Balinga, was, however, Mountford's one and only
informant on the 1960 expedition, spoke little English
and was anxious to escape Mountford so that he might
hunt dingo pups (see Mountford 1960:391,485,553).
Clearly, Mountford's (1965: 144) interpretation of the
rock art is too dependent upon the information extracted
from one, obviously reluctant, informant. It is also clear
that he was determined to discover the ' meaning' of the
art despite occasionally having to bully or bribe Balinga
into co-operating. Interpretations based upon information
derived from such methods are tenuous to say the least.
Claire E. Smith 47
Apart from this, it would appear that the earlier
1940 informants were not aware of, or willing to impart,
any particular meaning denoted by the art. Could it be
that the transmission of knowledge connected with the
art was a female, rather than a male, responsibility? The
presence of men at this site (see also Mountford
1965:47) would be regarded by Aboriginal women today
as ritual rape (Wonne-Greene: pers. comm.). Though the
site has been visited by men in the past, it is unlikely
that such visits were sanctioned by women and such men
are, I feel, unlikely to have left a calling card in the form
of rock paintings.
Wonne-Greene, the anthropologist now resident at
the Mutijulu community at Uluru, has received no
indication at all that the right to execute rock paintings
in this region might have been restricted to men. The
significance of the Pulari site for women is not, however,
related to the art, which does not appear to be
particularly relevant to Aboriginal women today. This is
consistent with Crawford's (1972:307) observation that
the art at (presumably male) sacred sites in the adjacent
Western Desert frequently has little or no relevance to
the myths that make these sites sacred.
The point I would like to make here is that the rock
art at the Pulari site is just as likely to have been
executed by women as by men. While there may be
problems in other parts of Australia with previously open
sites becoming closed, I would argue that at Uluru
modem gender restrictions on physical access and
knowledge are likely to have antecedents which militated
against men leaving physical traces of their presence at
this site.
Any argument that Aboriginal women's business is
no more than recent manipulation of land rights
legislation is countered by Spencer and Gillen's
(1899[1968]) observation that:
... in regard to the initiation ceremonies of women, it is
clear that, as was first shown by Roth, there are certain
ceremonies which are evidently the equivalents of the
initiation ceremonies concerned with the men.
(Spencer and Gillen (1899[1968) :269)
This notion that female sacra predate European land
rights legislation is also supported by Kaberry' s
(1939:277) contention that Aboriginal women in the
Kimberley maintained a body of knowledge, and a set of
activities, from which men were excluded. She argued
... the men represent the uninitiated in the community in
regard to women's ceremonies, which, if less spectacular,
are, to the women. just as sacred.
(Kaberry 1939:221)
It would appear, therefore, that exclusive ritual
knowledge associated with women's ceremonies existed
in a number of regions within Australia. I would argue
that the execution of rock art may well have been one
expression of such knowledge.
Aboriginal people in the Kimberley believe that the
majority of rock art derives from the Dream time, but that
occasional embellishments and subjects may be added by
humans. Kaberry (1936:398) records being told that an
old woman in Gangula country in the Kimberley
occasionally touched up rock paintings of Brimurer, the
Rainbow Snake. Brimurer then took the ochre from the
painting to make a spirit child to replace one that had
recently been found by a man and incarnated through his
wife. Kaberry asserts that Brimurer made the rain, the
rivers and pools in the Dreamtime and that:
... in the spirit-children and spirit centres, in the
mythology and rock paintings of the Rainbow serpent we
have a fertility cult.
(Kaberry 1936:398)
Part of that fertility cult involved some women in the
execution of sacred rock art.
Kaberry (1939:206) presented the earliest challenge
to the traditional dichotomy between sacred and secular
rock art through her contention that a category of rock
art existed, the full meaning of which was known only
by old women and old men. The paintings - of
crocodile, kangaroo, emu, rainbow snake and other
species - were executed as a means of ensuring the
increase of species depicted.
The painting itself was generally done by a
'headman'. Elkin (1939:xxxix), however, reports being
told of the existence of a female 'headman' in this
region during this period; such a woman would,
presumably, have incurred responsibilities to land that
involved the execution of sacred rock art. This
interpretation is supported by Mowaljarlai's statement
concerning the repainting ofWandjinas in the Kimberley:
We need to teach the young men and women ... so that
they can continue to look after the country. That's why
we, the old men, started to train the young people. A very
important part of this training was for them to learn about
repainting -body-painting for ceremonies and to renew
the painted images on rock.
(Mowaljarlai et a/ 1988:692)
Vinnicombe (pers. comm.), like Elkin, contends that
the responsibility for repainting in the Kimberley lay in
the hands of the senior traditional owner. Much painting
could, nevertheless, be executed under the sanction of
such owners by people possessing a particular spiritual
quality known as maban.
Rock Art and Prehistory
Both males and females can be born with spiritual
insight and may display maban features during
childhood, but maban is also something that can be
learnt. People with maban are natural spiritual leaders,
though they will not take on this role until after puberty
for females, and after circumcision for males. People
with maban could be principals in rock art production.
Thus, the two mechanisms through which women in
the Kimberley became involved in producing rock art are
identical to those through which men became involved in
producing rock art: that of being a senior traditional
owner, and that of being recognised as having particular
spiritual qualities suited to the undertaking of such
responsibilities. I would like to emphasise that I am
referring to women and men and that I have found no
indication at all that girls or boys could traditionally be
involved in rock art production.
Vinnicombe witnessed a gathering of men, women
and children in a sacred rock shelter on the Mitchell
Plateau in the Kimberley, at which rain-making songs
were sung whilst a new hand stencil was added to the
paintings. Such occurrences need to be considered within
the context of the contention that designs are actually
endowed with meaning through being sung or chanted on.
How then does one assess the significance of male
and female roles in such ceremonies? A counter to the
argument that women were peripheral to the ceremony
because they did not do the actual painting would be that
men may not have had the right or power to execute
these particular paintings if women had not been there to
promote power by singing. Apart from this, it is clear
that the painting of the object is, by itself, insufficient to
gain the desired ends.
Another site at which women are likely to have had
a role in rock art production is that of Beswick Cave.
The art at this site was recorded by Macintosh (1952),
who made a number of comments suggesting that this
site was of greater significance to women than to men.
He records his male informants' repeated references to
this f ave as a woman's cave:
Lamderod's and Mangga's consistent references to
'lubra's cave', 'lubra's Big Business', 'lubra's dilly bags',
'lubra bin leave him', 'lubra sometimes come 'ere' etc.
(Macintosh 1952:270)
Macintosh concludes the paper by suggesting the
deviations in painting styles and content are related to
the essentially female emphasis of the cave and its
paintings. The most elaborate painting is of a highly
decorated woman, which Macintosh interprets as part of
a fertility cult, with the woman related to the Djarada
songs, one group of which are women's songs devoted
to secret love magic:
She carries above her head a boomerang "little one same
old man (no. 62) had for open 'im, but she has 'im
instead, not man". Apparently she commits self-
defloration. It is dangerous for men to watch her but it is
all right for women to see her.
(Macintosh 1952:271)
I would argue that art which is dangerous for men
to see is unlikely to have been painted by men.
Certainly, women in this area did have some role in rock
art production, as Elkin notes that:
Instead of painting a picture, a person (man, woman or
child) may paint or stencil his (her) hand on the wall, but
for the same purpose.
(Elkin 1952:246)
Elkin does, however, assert that the figurative art at
this site was executed by men. Notwithstanding, he does
not explicitly mention the female figure that was too
dangerous for men to see and I doubt whether he
specifically asked who painted that particular figure.
Unlike Macintosh, Elkin recognises that individuals will
have varying interpretations of art according to their
social positions. However, this recognition is still based
upon the notion that there is someone, somewhere, who
knows all - and that that person is a senior initiated
male. Recent researchers (Lewis and Rose 1988:53.
Berndt and Berndt 1988:412; Tayon 1988) have,
however, noted the referential ambiguity of Aboriginal
art, which is not open to simple interpretation by one
individual or, indeed, one sex.
Women's involvement in rock art production in
Western Amhem Land appears, however, to be genuinely
minimal. Tacon (1988 and pers. comm.) notes that
women do not appear to have painted elaborate x-ray
:paintings, though they have, on occasion, painted stick
and recent yam figures .
The degree to which women participated in the
production of rock art in different areas of Australia is,
thus, as variable as the societies in which they lived.
Any analysis of women's art must, therefore, be
Gonducted regionally - it is not valid to extrapolate
women's actions or motivations within one area to
regions outside that area. In some cases the art may be
archaeologically distinguishable from that of men, but in
others it will not be. And in some regions women's role
in sacred rock art production might genuinely have been
negligible or even non-existent.
The question raised by this paper is: if Aboriginal
women had a role in rock art production, and if they
had rock art sites from which men were excluded, why
are there so few ethnographic data on these activities?
One answer lies with the extent to which the socio-
cultural background of the ethnographer directs his or
Claire E. Smith 49
her focus to particular areas of research. Another lies
with the nature of gender relations in Aboriginal
Initial European perceptions of Australian
Aborigines were coloured by Romantic fancies that
interpreted ceremonial life as the 'play' of 'children of
nature' . Various colonists (e.g. Hunter 1793 and Hood
1843, quoted in Leiberman 1985:246) asserted that
Aborigines showed no signs of religious life, nor of
religious ceremonies. This failure to apprehend the nexus
between art, religion and power meant that no questions
were asked concerning the social and communicative
role of art, and that interpretation was not taken beyond
empirical limits.
This nexus was identified by Spencer and Gillen
(1899[1968]) in The Native Tribes of Central Australia,
which was one of the first studies to place rock art
within its social and ceremonial context. The focus of
this study upon male ceremonies and their identification
of ritual communication with males was initially
probably a function of the ethnographers' exclusion from
female ceremonies. However, this identification gave rise
to the notion that ritual communication was a male
domain. Once this connection had been made, serious
reassessment of women's role in ritual awaited an
acceptance of the notion of Aboriginal women as holders
of religious power and responsibility. ,
This situation was exacerbated with the publication
of Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of Religious Life
in 1915, in which he proposes a framework in which a
range of sacredness is differentiated from the secular.
While Spencer and Gillen (1899[1968:92- 93]) had
recognised initiated women as a separate social group,
subsequent research conducted within a basically
Durkheimian framework, such as that of Warner (1958),
treated the notions of sacred and secular as a simple
dichotomy, parallel to the male-female dichotomy of
Aboriginal societies (see Bemdt 1981:189- 190 for
specific cnt1c1sm of Warner's interpretation of
Durkheim). Women were thence taken to be the
uninitiated members of the social group simply because
they were uninitiated into male secrets.
Elkin was a principal advocate of this view. He
asserted that:
... women may be independent, powerful, and yet be
profane, or outside of that sphere of sacred belief and
ritual, admission to which is by religious initiation.
(Elkin 1939:xxx)
Such a view led to women's role in ritual activity
consistently being assessed by the degree to which they
were ' involved' or 'excluded' from male ceremonies. As
Hamilton ( 1980: 17) points out, the incorporation of
some women into male ceremonies was taken to
indicate a rise in status, presumably because they were
allowed access to male secrets. This view denies the
possibility of women contributing their own power or
knowledge to the ceremonies and fails to recognise that
women, in some areas at least, had an autonomous
ritual life that encompassed rights and responsibilities to
land. I would that the rise in status of women
participating in such ceremonies is related to the
and legitimisation of female religious
The dearth of information on women' s culture in
rock art studies of the twentieth century can be explained
in terms of the gender relations of both Aboriginal and
European cultures. White, middle-class male
ethnographers dominated early research into Australian
Aboriginal culture. They viewed women's ceremonies
within a theoretical framework . that identified women
with home and hearth, rather than power and-religious
responsibility. This is not to say that they did not
recognise the need for female ethnographers. The
decisions made by Kaberry and Goodale to focus their
- attention upon women were at the instigation of Elkin
and Mountford respectively (see Kaberry 1939:ix and
Goodale 1980:xxii). Such recognition did not, however,
negate or even contradict the dominant European view
that the Aboriginal sacred realm was principally, or
wholly, a male domain.
The primary informants of early, male ethnographers
were Aboriginal men who are likely to have valued the
ritual activity of their own sex above that of females and
who, in any case, would not have had the right to speak
on women's issues. It is also likely that Aboriginal
women did not attribute identical status to male and
female ceremonies. In fact, there is considerable
evidence to suggest the contrary - that male ceremonial
activity is generally accorded a higher prestige than that
of women. This is particularly apparent in women' s
willingness to underwrite male ceremony through the
provision of resources and in the degree to which the
ritual activities of each sex is allowed to disrupt normal
activity (cf. Merlan 1988:66). Myers (1986:252- 3), for
example, argues that Pintupi men's ceremonies have a
wider inclusiveness than women's in that they entail the
aggregation of large groups and determine the
movements and labour of women for extended periods.
Such observations are common throughout the literature
and this is possibly a universal throughout Aboriginal
societies. Merlan's (1988) view is most insightful:
It has seemed to me that the subjective understandings of
women about themselves reveal no gender based sense
whatsoever of personal inferiority to men, but a sense of
priority of certain male domains, especially ritual, and a
50 Rock Art and Prehistory
strong sense of the propriety of adhering to norms of
gender differentiated behaviour.
(Merlan 1988:59)
My point here is that the nature of the interface
between European and Aboriginal was such that
it would have been extremely difficult for
information on women's ceremonial life to emerge. Elkin
(1939:xx-) notes that a male researeher questioning
Aboriginal men on aspects of women's culture would be
instructed to question the women directly. He also
argues, notwithstanding, that:
... the male anthropologist is apt to feel, and rightly so,
that he, as a man, should respect the taboo and not pry
into the preserves of the other sex ... In any case, the male
worker refrains, from reasons of courtesy and delicacy,
from inquiring into some aspects of a woman's life. He is
not a physician.
(Elkin 1939:xx)
Whilst aspects of this statement are elliptical, Elkin
properly recognises that the study of Aboriginal women's
ceremonies by European men would have transgressed
Aboriginal social codes. It is likely that his courtesy was
appreciated by both Aboriginal men and women.
Mountford's explanation for his own failure to
collect women's crayon drawings is also illuminating:
No attempt was made by the writer to collect any
drawings from the women. As every ethnologist knows it
is unwise, and usually calamitous, to carry out research
with both sexes. The inevitable outcome is that the men
become suspicious that the secrets they have imparted to
the investigator are being passed on to the women, or vice
versa. However, my young companion, Mr L.E. Sheard,
about seventeen years of age, in collaboration with a
middle-aged Aboriginal woman, was able to obtain a
small series of drawings from the women.
(Mountford 1976:109)
Mountford was presented with a practical dilemma
and took what he probably considered to be the only
option open to him. However, this was not the case with
the early female ethnographer Daisy Bates, who might
have had access to women's ceremonies but chose to
identify herself with men rather than women. She
describes the latter as 'less than dust' (Bates 1938:28).
Her focus upon male culture and her access to secret
male ceremonies almost certainly militated against her
being granted fuller access to women's ceremonies. A
similar position to that of Mountford has been taken
more recently by Bell (1983:8) who went into the field
with the intention of focusing solely upon women. My
criticism of all such studies is that this approach is
unnecessarily limited and prohibits insights into the
nature of male-female relations.
Nearly all detailed information of women's culture
has come from female research. The 'excavation' of such
information had to await the advent of the female
ethnographer as well as a social and intellectual climate
in which the study of women's culture is considered a
legitimate research issue, rather than an eccentric
aberration. Such a climate only really emerged in the late
'seventies and early 'eighties during which period
various aspects of women's role in Aboriginal society
have undergone re-evaluation by, principally female,
researchers. One of the more interesting studies is that of
Caroline Bird (1988), who investigates the role of
women in the manufacture and maintenance of stone
The principal difference between researchers of the
'eighties and those of earlier periods is in the type of
questions which are being asked. Today these questions
rest upon the assumption that women in both European
and Aboriginal societies can hold positions of power and
religious authority.
That Aboriginal women have done a better job at
keeping their secrets secret can be explained in terms of
both the sex, race and socio-cultural background of the
ethnographer as well as the likelihood that Aboriginal
women did not see that they had anything to gain by
disclosing secrets. Apart from this, it is clear that men
speak more easily to men and that women speak more
easily to women.
The identification of s sacred sites is only
really emerging within the context of European
recognition of Aboriginal rights to control sites and land
(e.g. Lewis and Rose 1988:70); it rimy be that the cost of
exposure has become less than the cost of losing the
land. Aboriginal women are now willing to speak out
concerning their responsibilities to land. Part of those
responsibilities involved the custodianship and
maintenance of sacred sites, including those that have
rock art.
While the existence of rock art sites sacred to males
has received considerable anthropological and
archaeological attention, no-one seems to have seriously
considered women's role in rock art production, or the
possibility that women may have had rock art sites from
which men were excluded. Such sites exist in the
ethnographic present and are likely to have existed in
prehistoric Australia and elsewhere. If they did exist, and
can be identified as such, their identification must be
crucial to regional and inter-site studies. They may also
indicate the degree of female ritual autonomy through
time and space.
This paper has focused upon interpretations and case
studies of Australian rock art. There are, however,
Claire E. Smith 51
implications for rock art studies in other parts of the
world. The assumption that sacred rock art, or rock art
in general, was executed solely by men underlies various
interpretations of European rock art. Guthrie (1984), for
example, claims that:
The Palaeolithic art which has been preserved seems to be
an art by men about male preoccupations. .
(Guthrie 1984:71)
This is certainly not always the case in the
Australian situation and, I would argue, is unlikely to be
the case in Europe (see also Balm, this volume).
Guthrie' s assumption that the depiction of hunting
activities will be a male province, is refuted by the
content of women's crayon drawings collected on the
1940 Mountford expedition to Central Australia. Various
female artists depicted the hunting journeys of men,
women and couples (Mountford 1976:111-114). As these
were the first drawings on non-traditional media
executed by these women, and as they were given no
instruction as to what to draw, it is likely that they were
thematically similar to traditional sources (cf. Robinson
and Bagglin 1977:70).
Quite apart from this, there are ethnographic reports
of women painting rock in other parts of the world.
Schaafsma (1985:260), for example, provides a number
of instances of women painting as part of North
American Indian puberty ceremonies. In addition,
Seligmann and Seligmann (1969:319) also refer to
women painting rocks in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) at the
turn of the century. Gender may thus be an important
factor in both recent and prehistoric rock art variability
in various parts of the world. Interpretations of
prehistoric rock art should be modified to take into
account the probable role of women in rock art
I would like to thank those people who provided written
comment on earlier drafts of this paper: Jane Balme,
Wendy Beck, lain Davidson and, especially, Mike
Morwood. I would also like to thank those researchers
who allowed me to publish their personal
communications: Darrell Lewis, Deborah Rose, Paul
Tac;:on, Pat Vinnicombe and Susan Wonne-Greene. Most
of these also offered either written or verbal comment on
earlier drafts and often tl:l,ese comments were
incorporated into the text. Darrell Lewis was particularly
helpful in this regard. Jo Flood kindly invited me to
Yingalarri. Special thanks to John Fisher, Gary Jackson
and John Sutton. Any errors of omission or interpretation
are, of course, my own.
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