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Aboriginal Rock and Cave Art

Handprints in Kakadu, credit kate owen gallery.

By Steve Trotter

Posted on 2nd September 2023

More Than Just Pretty Patterns

When the ancestors made the Lore in the Dreaming, they created the ‘rules’ that everyone must follow to maintain the ‘right’ relationship with themselves, each other and their environment to ensure peace and harmony across the continent. ‘Don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t be greedy’. Three simple rules. They did not write the Lore in books because they did not have books. Did this mean that they were primitive? No. It means they understood that their resources were finite. The very idea of cutting down trees to create paper would have been a greedy action and would have broken the Lore. Aboriginal people come from a civilisation that developed over 80,000 years. Their Lore is based on trial and error. Compare that to our civilisation. It’s less than 7 thousand years old, and that’s being generous. We’re still learning from our mistakes. Our greed to burn through our resources to make individuals wealthy is not a sustainable way of living for humanity.

CREDIT: leviv

Aboriginal people learnt this tens of thousands of years ago. They wanted to make sure that future generations learned from their mistakes so they created the Lore, a set of principles that would ensure that every future generation lived as well as they did.The ancestors embedded this Lore into their people’s cultural practices. The Lore was reinforced in the ceremonies, practices, arts and in relationships. In this way, the Lore was passed on from one generation to the next. Lore was not something written in the past, it was alive. The Lore was cemented into each mobs’ cultural practices. When the mob moved from one seasonal campsite to the next, the appropriate ceremonies, dances, art work and songs for each place were repeated to remind everyone that life and each person’s relationship with themselves, others and the world around them is sacred. If anyone mistreats themselves, others or their environment, the ripples from their actions will cause bad things to happen for the next generation of people. Each generation of Aboriginal people followed these principles for thousands of years… and then the British arrived.

Unfortunately, the British invasion of Australia systematically destroyed and fragmented Aboriginal culture in many places. Knowledge holders were murdered, sacred sites were destroyed, families and clans were split up. Aboriginal people were forbidden to speak their language or to practice their cultural rituals, rites, or routines. They were forced to adopt their conquerors’ culture and they were severely punished if they tried to practice their own culture.

Rufus River Massacre (State Library of Victoria, engraving by Samuel Calvert).

But thankfully, the ancestors were too clever. By embedding the lores in EVERY practice, and in every mob across Australia, and even in the landscape itself, the lores survived and Aboriginal people are beginning to put their cultures back together. Every traditional practice that an Aboriginal person does strengthens their connection with their ancestors. One of the most powerful practices is painting.

Although it is difficult to find traditional rock paintings around Ballina, Aboriginal people in the Ballina area are exceptional painters. Digby Moran, Coral Sines and Marcus Ferguson are outstanding. The fact that evidence of paintings is hard to find is probably more of an indication that the paintings have been destroyed during the British settlement of the area rather than an indication that the Nyangbal people did not paint. The white settlers quarried a lot of rocks from the areas around the Kiosk and Black Head without a thought and would have damaged any artwork on the rock faces if it was there.

Black Head before the quarry work in 1940.

Black Head 1983.

Painting Connects to Culture

Aboriginal rock painting and cave painting were very significant in Aboriginal culture. The paintings were alive. Unlike Western paintings, the paintings were repainted and restored by each generation. This ensured the paintings survived.

The paintings had one of three purposes:

  1. They recorded the clan’s past.
  2. They provided instructions for the present.
  3. They connected the clan to their family in the past, the present and the future.

It was the clan’s responsibility to revisit the site and maintain the paintings so that the lore would be passed on to the next generation.

Credit: Mike Owen

A Visual Recording of the Past

Sometimes paintings depicted past events that had a significant impact on the clan. They acted as a record of the event and a warning to the current clan to watch for the signs if it looks like it might be repeated.

Instructional Paintings

Bill Neidjie from Northern QLD was one of only a handful of Elders who was instructed in the old ways. When he realized that his culture might die with his death he recorded the lore in his book, ‘The Kakadu Man’. In it, he explains the reason why his mob painted the art on the rock walls the way they did.

The rock paintings in Kakadu are tens of thousands of years old. The paintings on the rock walls were painted in a style called ‘X-ray art,’ using coloured clay (ochre) and twig brushes, that showed the skeletons of the creatures. The pictures could be used to teach children about the anatomy of an animal much like a science teacher would in a biology lesson. But they also served another purpose. As Bill explained:

‘Law written in cave. That painting is law. Aboriginal law never change. Old people tell us… ‘You gotta keep it.’ It always stay. Never change.’ My grandpa teach me. Grandpa say, ‘You see painting… That’s the size fish should be now. Used to be that size. Need two men to carry one catfish… Now?… Little boy can carry catfish.’

The painting that Bill was talking depicts a fish that is larger than a tall adult. The painting was used like the fishing ‘size guides’ we use today. It was a visual reminder of how big a fish must be before you can keep it. This maintained the delicate ecological balance in Bill’s country and created a sustainable way of life for his people for thousands of years.

Rock art at Ubirr in Kakadu NP Image Luke DurkinWikimedia.


A Ritual of Connection

Many sites where the paintings were kept were sacred. They were ancient churches. They were carefully protected. One of the most significant surviving examples of this is the wall of handprints in Kakadu. While it might look like the Western equivalent of ‘finger painting’ Bill Neidjie explained that hand painting served a hugely significant purpose. The paintings were a symbol of the deep spiritual connection the people had with their ancestors and their future generations. Family members, with each new generation, were given the responsibility to repaint the handprints on the walls.To do this the painter placed their hand on the wall, usually on top of a descendant’s fading handprint, and then sprayed paint out of their mouths onto and around their pressed hand. 

The paint would cause an outline of the hand. This was ritual for families that acknowledged their ancestors and honoured their future generations by re-establishing the commitment to the forebears that they too would uphold the old ways so that their children and children’s children would inherit the same world and lifestyle that their ancestors had built for them.

Messages in the Sand

If you’ve looked closely at an Aboriginal paintings before you may have noticed that the same symbols in many of the pictures. The symbols represent objects, places and people in an aerial view. Through the careful arrangement of these symbols the artist is able to recreate a pictorial story of a significant or sacred site. Aboriginal art is often based off sand art which was used as a means of visual communication about an event in the future, present or past. In the drawing, the storyteller could create a visual map using symbols, that were recognised by every mob across the continent, to communicate about such things as how to get from A to B, where something significant happened, such as a sighting of strangers, or of a site where something significant was going to happen, such as a big gathering. Story tellers often drew these aerial view pictures to children too, to draw a map of the familial lands they lived on, pointing out boundaries and other significant sites that the children should stay away from. The symbols were also painted on message sticks which could be passed on to other clans across the country to communicate a message to them.

A woman draws men sitting around a fire at a meeting.                                            CREDIT: Pintrest

Contemporary Aboriginal Painting

Modern Aboriginal art uses traditional art styles and pictograms and transfers it to Western mediums, like canvas. It borrows from different styles from Aboriginal culture and the Western world and incorporates the pictograms or symbolic language that Aboriginal people used to communicate with one another in the sand or on message sticks.

Painting by Kate Owen.

Bulurru Aboriginal Art Canvas Print Unstretched – Women Gathering At Waterholes By Merryn Apma Daley

‘Three Brothers’ artwork by Marcus Ferguson depicting the Nyangbal people’s settlement of Ballina, Coraki and Woodburn in NSW.

If you would like to know more about contemporary Aboriginal painting go to: kate owen gallery,

Bulurru.com or contact Magpie Publishers to find out more about Marcus Ferguson and Digby Moran.

Want to Know More About Aboriginal Culture?

If you or your children would like to know more about Aboriginal history and culture, check out Magpie Publishers’ bookstore. There you will find stories that celebrate our First Nations’ People and detail the impact of colonization on Aboriginal people, the environment, and their culture. 


Walk on Country

How about a tour? If you want to learn about a deeper time history of Ballina, why not arrange a tour of the Nyangbal people’s country? Eli Cook, and the other Nyangbal custodians, will guide you through their country, share their culture with you and tell you about their history, in person. 

We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of Australia and honour the Elders past and present.

© Steve Trotter 2023

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