Iconography in Bradshaw rock art: breaking the circularity

Clin Exp Optom. 2011 Sep;94(5):403-17. doi: 10.1111/j.1444-0938.2011.00648.x.


Background: Interpreting the symbols found in the rock art of an extinct culture is hampered by the fact that such symbols are culturally determined. How does one break the circularity inherent in the fact that the knowledge of both the symbols and the culture comes from the same source? In this study, the circularity is broken for the Bradshaw rock art of the Kimberley by seeking anchors from outside the culture.

Methods: Bradshaw rock art in the Kimberley region of Australia and Sandawe rock art in the Kolo region of Eastern Tanzania were surveyed in six visits on foot, by vehicle, by helicopter and from published or shared images, as well as from the published and online images of Khoisan rock art.

Results: Uniquely shared images between Bradshaw and Sandawe art, such as the 'mushroom head' symbol of psilocybin use, link the two cultures and indicate that they were shamanistic. Therefore, many mysterious features in the art can be understood in terms of trance visualisations. A number of other features uniquely link Bradshaw and Sandawe cultures, such as a special affinity for small mammals. There are also many references to baobabs in early Bradshaw art but not later. This can be explained in the context of the Toba super-volcano, the likely human transport of baobabs to the Kimberley and the extraordinary utility of the baobab.

Conclusion: Many more mysterious symbols in Bradshaw rock art might await interpretation using the approaches adopted here.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Adansonia
  • Africa
  • Art / history*
  • Australia
  • Hallucinogens / history*
  • History, Ancient
  • Humans
  • Psilocybin / history*
  • Shamanism / history*
  • Symbolism*


  • Hallucinogens
  • Psilocybin