Ritual and Religion in Prehistory: Unit 7 Ancestor cults

7.2 Archaeology of the Dreaming

Aboriginal rock art is a complex pictorial record of Australia’s human past – the encrypted beliefs of hundreds of generations of people, and the images of their spiritual and earthly world. Much Australian rock art is the expression of beliefs about the Dreaming (Creation) and relationships with the land. Aborigines have been painting and engraving pictures for at least 13,000 years. The earliest paintings in the Kimberley region of Western Australia are called Bradshaw Figures. In local Aboriginal belief, they represent Ancestral Beings, invisible spirit people created during the Dreaming. The most recent style, called Wandjina art, in which large figures of Ancestral Beings are the central theme, continues today. Aboriginal art is still a central part of religious life and a vital accompaniment to ceremonies and rituals. It is the tangible expression of the relevance and reality of myth and of Aboriginal unity with nature. Art is woven into the fabric of Aboriginal life: the stories of the Dreaming are re-enacted through art, music and dance.

Namarrgon the lightning man portrayed at Nourlangie Rock

© Paul Taçon


To find out more about the Ancestral Beings depicted in Australian rock art, read Taçon, Paul (2005), ‘The world of ancient ancestors’, in Expedition, vol. 47, no. 3, pp. 37–42.

Discussion activity: Ancestor cults

Follow this link to find out more about the Bradshaw Figures. Then consider the following question:

  • Is it safe to assume that the concept of the Dreaming, the way it is communicated, and the ritual practices associated with it, have remained unchanged in Australia since prehistoric times?

Post your thoughts on the Ancestor cults forum.