Hostname: page-component-7d684dbfc8-csfzr Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-09-27T06:19:41.874Z Has data issue: false Feature Flags: { "corePageComponentGetUserInfoFromSharedSession": true, "coreDisableEcommerce": false, "coreDisableSocialShare": false, "coreDisableEcommerceForArticlePurchase": false, "coreDisableEcommerceForBookPurchase": false, "coreDisableEcommerceForElementPurchase": false, "coreUseNewShare": true, "useRatesEcommerce": true } hasContentIssue false

Country and Relational Ontology in the Kimberley, Northwest Australia: Implications for Understanding and Representing Archaeological Evidence

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 April 2018

Martin Porr*
Archaeology/Centre for Rock-Art Research and Management, The University of Western Australia, Crawley, WA 6009, Australia Email:


The Aboriginal cultural traditions of Australia, their histories, philosophies and characteristics, have fascinated and intrigued European observers and scholars for a very long time. This paper explores some implications of recent ethnographic information and engagements related to the themes of Indigenous rock art, knowledge and the understanding of Country in the Kimberley region, Western Australia, for the interpretation of archaeological evidence. It is argued that the Aboriginal understanding of cultural features and practices, rock art and the natural environment is best described within a framework of relational ontology. This orientation has important consequences for the conceptualization of a range of interrelated key themes, most importantly ‘space and place’, ‘story and narrative’ and ‘knowledge and representation’. Thus, the paper calls for the development of opportunities of intellectual engagement and exchange as well as collaborative and creative responses, which should also include new forms of expression in academic contexts that themselves reflexively engage with the limitations of writing and representation.

Research Article
Copyright © McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research 2018 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Alberti, B. & Bray, T.L., 2009. Animating archaeology: of subjects, objects and alternative ontologies. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 19 (3), 337–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Alberti, B., Fowles, S., Holbraad, M., Marshall, Y. & Witmore, C.L., 2011. ‘Worlds Otherwise’. Archaeology, anthropology, and ontological difference. Current Anthropology 52 (6), 896911.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Alberti, B. & Marshall, Y., 2009. Animating archaeology: local theories and conceptually open-ended methodologies. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 19 (3), 344–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Anderson, K., 2007. Race and the Crisis of Humanism. New York (NY): Routledge.Google Scholar
Anderson, K., 2014. Mind over matter? On decentring the human in human geography. Cultural Geographies 21 (1), 318.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Anderson, K. & Perrin, C., 2007. ‘The miserablest people in the world’: race, humanism and the Australian Aborigine. The Australian Journal of Anthropology 18 (1), 1839.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ballard, C. 2014. Oceanic historicities. The Contemporary Pacific 26 (1), 95154.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Barnard, A. (ed.), 2004. Hunter-Gatherers in History, Archaeology and Anthropology. New York (NY): Routledge.Google Scholar
Bender, B. (ed.), 1993. Landscape: Politics and perspectives. Oxford: Berg.Google Scholar
Bird-David, N., 1999. Animism revisited. Personhood, environment and relational epistemology. Current Anthropology 40 (Supplement February 1999), S67S91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Blundell, V., 2003. The art of country: aesthetics, place, and Aboriginal identity in north-west Australia, in Disputed Territories: Land, culture and identity in settler societies, eds. Trigger, D. & Griffiths, G.. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 155–85.Google Scholar
Blundell, V., Doohan, K., Vachon, D., Allbrock, M., Jebb, M.A. & Bornman, J. (eds.), 2017a. Barddabardda Wodjenangorddee: We're telling all of you. The creation, history and people of Dambimangaddee Country. Derby: Dambimangari Aboriginal Corporation.Google Scholar
Blundell, V. & Woolagoodja, D., 2005. Keeping the Wandjinas Fresh: Sam Woolagoodja and the enduring power of Lalai. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press.Google Scholar
Blundell, V. & Woolagoodja, D., 2012. Rock art, aboriginal culture, and identity: the Wandjina paintings of Northwest Australia, in A Companion to Rock Art, eds. Veth, P. & McDonald, J.. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 472–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Blundell, V., Woolagoodja, D., Oobagooma, J. & Umbagai, L., 2017b. Visiting Gonjorong's Cave, in The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Rock Art, eds. David, B. & McNiven, I.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 129.Google Scholar
Bradley, J. 2008. When a stone tool is a dingo: Country and relatedness in Australian Aboriginal notions of landscape, in Handbook of Landscape Archaeology, eds. David, B. & Thomas, J.. Walnut Creek (CA): Left Coast Press, 633–7.Google Scholar
Brady, L.M., Bradley, J.J. & Kearney, A.J., 2016. Negotiating Yanyuwa rock art. Relational and affectual experiences in the Southwest Gulf of Carpentaria, Northern Australia. Current Anthropology 57 (1), 2852.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Brown, L.A. & Walker, W.H., 2008. Prologue: archaeology, animism and non-human agents. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 15, 297–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bruchac, M.M., Hart, S.M. & Wobst, H.M. (eds.), 2010. Indigenous Archaeologies: A reader in decolonization. Walnut Creek (CA): Left Coast Press.Google Scholar
Brumm, A. & Moore, M.W., 2005. Symbolic revolutions and the Australian archaeological record. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 15 (2), 157–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Casey, E.S., 1996. How to get from space to place in a fairly short stretch of time: phenomenological prolegomena, in Senses of Place, eds. Feld, S. & Basso, K.H.. Santa Fe (NM): School of American Research, 1352.Google Scholar
Clifford, J., 1997. Routes. Travel and translation in the late twentieth century. Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
Crawford, I., 1968. The Art of the Wandjina. London: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Cummings, V., Jordan, P. & Zvelebil, M. (eds.), 2014. The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Hunter-Gatherers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
David, B., 2002. Landscape, Rock Art and the Dreaming: An archaeology of preunderstanding. London: Leicester University Press.Google Scholar
David, B., Lamb, L., Delannpy, J.-J., Pivoru, F., Rowe, C., Pivoru, M., Frank, T., Frank, N., Fairbairn, A. & Pivoru, R., 2012. Promo Tamu and the case of the drowning village: history, lost places and the stories we tell. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 16 (2), 319–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
David, B., Lamb, L. & Kaiwari, J., 2014. Landscapes of mobility. The flow of place, in The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Hunter-Gatherers (Kindle edn), eds. Cummings, V., Jordan, P. & Zvelebil, M.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Loc. 29682–Loc. 30492.Google Scholar
David, B. & Thomas, J. S. (eds.), 2008. Handbook of Landscape Archaeology. Walnut Creek (CA): Left Coast Press.Google Scholar
Dennell, R. & Porr, M. (eds.), 2014. Southern Asia, Australia and the Search for Human Origins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Donaldson, M. & Kenneally, K. (eds.), 2007. Rock Art of the Kimberley. Proceedings of the Kimberley Society Rock Art Seminar. Perth: Kimberley Society.Google Scholar
Doohan, K., Umbagai, L., Oobagooma, J. & Porr, M., 2016. Produktion und Befugnis. Über Präsentation, Repräsentation und die Zusammenarbeit mit den traditionellen Besitzern der Felsmalereien der Kimberley-Region, Nordwestaustralien, in Kunst der Vorzeit. Texte zu den Felsbildern der Sammlung Frobenius, eds. Kohl, K.-H., Kuba, R., Ivanoff, H. & Burkard, B.. Frankfurt am Main: Frobenius Institut, 92105.Google Scholar
Doring, J. (ed.), 2000. Gwion Gwion. Secret and sacred pathways of the Ngarinyin Aboriginal people of Australia. Cologne: Könemann.Google Scholar
Doring, J. & Nyawarra, P., 2014. Gwion artists and Wunan Law: the origin of society in Australia. Rock Art Research 31 (1), 313.Google Scholar
Elkin, A.P., 1930. Rock paintings in North-west Australia. Oceania 1 (3), 257–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ferris, N., Harrison, R. & Wilcox, M. (eds.), 2014. Rethinking Colonial Pasts Through Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Flood, J., 1990. Archaeology of the Dreamtime: The story of prehistoric Australia and its people. New Haven (CT): Yale University Press.Google Scholar
Gamble, C.S., 2007. Origins and Revolutions. Human identity in earliest prehistory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gamble, C.S. & Gittins, E., 2004. Social archaeology and origins research: a Paleolithic perspective, in A Companion to Social Archaeology, eds. Meskell, L. & Preucel, R.W.. Malden (MA): Blackwell, 96118.Google Scholar
González-Ruibal, A. (ed.), 2013. Reclaiming Archaeology. Beyond the tropes of modernity. New York (NY): Routledge.Google Scholar
Gosden, C., 1999. Anthropology & Archaeology. A changing relationship. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
Gosden, C., 2012. Post-colonial archaeology, in Archaeological Theory Today, ed. Hodder, I.. (2nd edition.) Cambridge: Polity Press, 251–66.Google Scholar
Haber, A.F., 2009. Animism, relatedness, life: post-Western perspectives. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 19 (3), 418–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hamilakis, Y. & Duke, P. (eds.), 2007. Archaeology and Capitalism. From ethics to politics. Walnut Creek (CA): Left Coast Press.Google Scholar
Harris, O.J.T. & Robb, J., 2012. Multiple ontologies and the problem of the body in history. American Anthropologist 114 (4), 668–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Harrison, R., 2015. Beyond ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ heritage: toward an ontological politics of heritage in the age of anthropocene. Heritage & Society 8 (1), 2442.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hirsch, E. & O'Hanlon, M. (eds.), 1995. The Anthropology of Landscape. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Hiscock, P., 2007. Archaeology of Ancient Australia. New York (NY): Routledge.Google Scholar
Holbraad, M. & Pedersen, M.A. 2017. The Ontological Turn. An anthropological exposition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Holbraad, M., Pedersen, M.A. & Viveiros de Castro, E., 2014. The politics of ontology: anthropological positions. Cultural Anthropology. Retrieved 16 June 2017, from Scholar
Hussain, S. T. & Floss, H., 2015a. Regional ontologies in the Early Upper Palaeolithic: the place of mammoth and cave lion in the ‘belief world’ (Glaubenswelt) of the Swabian Aurignacian, in Prehistoric Art as Prehistoric Culture, eds. Bueno-Ramirez, P. & Bahn, P.G.. Oxford: Archaeopress, 4558.Google Scholar
Hussain, S. T. & Floss, H., 2015b. Sharing the world with mammoths, cave lions and other beings: linking animal-human interactions and the Aurignacian ‘belief world’. Quartär 62, 85120.Google Scholar
Ingold, T., 2007. Lines. A brief history. New York (NY): Routledge.Google Scholar
Ingold, T., 2000. The Perception of the Environment. Essays in livelihood, dwelling and skill. New York (NY): Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ingold, T., 2011. Being Alive. Essays on movement, knowledge and description. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
Ingold, T., 2016. Evolution and Social Life (reissued edn). New York (NY): Routledge.Google Scholar
James, D., 2015. Tjukurpa time, in Long History, Deep Time. Deepening histories of place, eds. McGrath, A. & Jebb, M.A.. Canberra: ANU Press, 3346.Google Scholar
Jebb, M.A. (ed.), 2008. Mowanjum: 50 years community history. Derby: Mowanjum Aboriginal Community and Mowanjum Artists Spirit of the Wandjina Aboriginal Corporation.Google Scholar
Layton, R., 2010. Australian Rock Art: A new synthesis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Liebmann, M. & Rizvi, U.Z. (eds.), 2008. Archaeology and the Postcolonial Critique. Lanham (MD): AltaMira Press.Google Scholar
Lommel, A., 1952. Die Unambal. Ein Stamm in Nordwest-Australien. Hamburg: Hamburgisches Museum für Völkerkunde.Google Scholar
Love, J.R.B., 1936. Stone-Age Bushmen of To-Day; Life and adventure among a tribe of savages in north-western Australia. London: Blackie & Son.Google Scholar
Lydon, J. & Rizvi, U.Z. (eds.), 2012. Handbook of Postcolonial Archaeology. Walnut Creek (CA): Left Coast Press.Google Scholar
Massey, D., 2005. For Space. London: Sage.Google Scholar
McDonald, J. & Veth, P., 2011. Western Desert iconography: Rrock art mythological narratives and graphic vocabularies. Diogenes 58 (3), 721.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
McDonald, J. & Veth, P. (eds.), 2012. A Companion to Rock Art. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
McDonald, J. & Veth, P., 2013. The archaeology of memory: the recursive relationship of Martu rock art and place. Anthropological Forum 23 (4), 367–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
McGrath, A. & Jebb, M.A. (eds.), 2015. Long History, Deep Time: Deepening histories of place. Canberra: ANU Press.Google Scholar
McNiven, I.J., 2016a. Theoretical challenges of Indigenous archaeology: setting an agenda. American Antiquity 81 (1), 2741.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
McNiven, I.J. 2016b. Ethnoarchaeology, epistemology, ethics. World Archaeology 48 (5), 683–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
McNiven, I.J. & Russell, L., 2005. Appropriated Pasts: Indigenous peoples and the colonial culture of archaeology. Oxford: Altamira Press.Google Scholar
Morphy, H., 2012. Recursive and iterative processes in Australian rock-art, in A Companion to Rock Art, eds. McDonald, J. & Veth, P.. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 294305.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Morwood, M.J., 2002. Visions from the Past: The archaeology of Australian Aboriginal rock art. Crows Nest (NSW): Allen & Unwin.Google Scholar
Mowaljarlai, D. & Malnic, J., 1993. Yorro Yorro – Everything Standing up Alive. Spirit of the Kimberley. Broome: Magabala Books Aboriginal Corporation.Google Scholar
Mowaljarlai, D., Vinnicombe, P., Ward, G.K. & Chippindale, C., 1988. Repainting of images on rock in Australia and the maintenance of Aboriginal culture. Antiquity 62, 690–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mulvaney, D.J. & Kamminga, J., 1999. Prehistory of Australia. Washington (DC): Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press.Google Scholar
Mulvaney, K., 2013. Iconic imagery: Pleistocene rock art development across northern Australia. Quaternary International 285, 99110.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
O'Connor, S., Balme, J., Fyfe, J., Oscar, J., Oscar, M., Davis, J., Malo, H., Nuggett, R. & Surprise, D., 2013. Marking resistance? Change and continuity in the recent rock art of the southern Kimberley, Australia. Antiquity 87, 539–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Olsen, B., 2010. In Defense of Things. Archaeology and the ontology of objects. Lanham (MD): Altamira Press.Google Scholar
Oobagooma, J., Umbagai, L., Doohan, K. & Porr, M., 2016. Yooddooddoom: a narrative exploration of the camp and the sacred place, daily life, images, arranged stones and Lalai Beings. Hunter Gatherer Research 2 (3), 345–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Petri, H., 1954. Sterbende Welt in Nordwestaustralien. Braunschweig: Albert Limbach.Google Scholar
Pina-Cabral, P., 2017. World. An anthropological examination. Chicago (IL): HAU Books.Google Scholar
Porr, M., 2010. Identifying behavioural modernity: lessons from Sahul. Bulletin of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association 30, 2834.Google Scholar
Porr, M., 2014. Essential questions: ‘Modern humans’ and the capacity for modernity, in Southern Asia, Australia and the Search for Human Origins, eds. Dennell, R. & Porr, M.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 257–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Porr, M., 2015. Beyond animality and humanity. Landscape, metaphor and identity in the Early Upper Palaeolithic of Central Europe, in Settlement, Sociality and Cognition in Human Evolution: Landscapes in mind, eds. Coward, F., Hosfield, R., Pope, M. & Wenban-Smith, F.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 5474.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Porr, M. & Bell, H.R., 2012. ‘Rock-art’, ‘animism’ and two-way thinking: towards a complementary epistemology in the understanding of material culture and ‘rock-art’ of hunting and gathering people. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 19, 161205.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Porr, M. & Matthews, J.M., 2016. Thinking through story. Archaeology and narratives. Hunter Gatherer Research 2 (3), 249–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Porr, M. & Matthews, J., 2017. Postcolonialism, human origins and the paradox of modernity. Antiquity 91, 1058–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Povinelli, E.A., 2016. Geontologies. A requiem to late liberalism. Durham (NC): Duke University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Praet, I., 2013. Humanity and life as the perpetual maintenance of specific efforts: a reappraisal of animism, in Biosocial Becomings. Integrating social and biological anthropology, eds. Ingold, T. & Palsson, G.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 191210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Redmond, A., 2005. Ungarinyin religion, in Encyclopedia of Religion (2nd edn), eds. Jones, L., Eliade, M. & Adams, C.J.. Detroit (MI): Macmillan Reference USA, 9458–62.Google Scholar
Redmond, A. 2017. Tracks and shadows: some social effects of the 1938 Frobenius expedition to the north-west Kimberley, in German Ethnography in Australia, eds. Petersen, N. & Kenny, A.. Canberra: ANU Press, 383412.Google Scholar
Rose, D.B., 1996. Nourishing Terrains: Australian Aboriginal views of landscape and wilderness. Canberra: Australian Heritage Commission.Google Scholar
Rose, D.B., 2004. Reports from a Wild Country. Ethics for decolonisation. Sydney: University of New South Wales.Google Scholar
Ross, J., Westaway, K., Travers, M., Morwood, M. & Hayward, J., 2016. Into the past: a step towards a robust Kimberley rock art chronology. PLoS ONE 11 (8), e0161726.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Rumsey, A., 1994. The Dreaming, human agency and inscriptive practice. Oceania 65 (2), 116–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ryan, J. & Akerman, K. (eds.), 1993. Images of Power. Aboriginal art of the Kimberley. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria.Google Scholar
Schnapp, J.M., Shanks, M. & Tiews, M., 2004. Archaeology, modernism, modernity. Modernism/Modernity 11 (1), 116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Schulz, A.S., 1956. North-west Australian rock paintings. Memoirs of the National Museum of Victoria, Melbourne 20, 757.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Seaman, D. & Mugerauer, R. (eds.), 1985. Dwelling, Place and Environment. New York (NY): Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
Smith, C. & Wobst, H.M. (eds.), 2005. Indigenous Archaeologies. Decolonizing theory and practice. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
Spencer, W.B. & Gillen, F.J., 1899. The Native Tribes of Central Australia. London: Macmillan.Google Scholar
Stanner, W.E.H., 1965. The Dreaming, in Reader in Comparative Religion. An anthropological approach, eds. Lessa, W.A. & Vogt, E.Z.. New York (NY): Harper & Row, 269–77.Google Scholar
Strathern, M., 1988. The Gender of the Gift: Problems with women and problems with society in Melanesia. Berkeley (CA): University of California Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Taylor, R., 2014. Australian archaeology and Aboriginal protest: Rhys Jones's Tasmanian work. Australian Historical Studies 45 (3), 331–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Thomas, J., 2004. Archaeology and Modernity. New York (NY): Routledge.Google Scholar
Trigger, B., 1984. Alternative archaeologies: nationalist, colonialist, imperialist. Man 19, 355–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Trigger, B., 1989. A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Veth, P., Myers, C., Heaney, P. & Ouzman, S., 2017. Plants before farming: the deep history of plant-use and representation in the rock art of Australia's Kimberley region. Quaternary International. Scholar
Vinnicombe, P. & Mowaljarlai, D., 1995. That rock is a cloud: concepts associated with rock images in the Kimberley region of Australia, in Perceiving Rock Art: Social and political perspectives, eds. Helskog, K. & Olsen, B.. Oslo: Instituttet for sammenlignende kulturforskning, 228–46.Google Scholar
Webmoor, T. & Witmore, C.L., 2008. Things are us! A commentary on human/things relations under the banner of a ‘social’ archaeology. Norwegian Archaeological Review 41 (1), 5370.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Willerslev, R., 2007. Soul Hunters: Hunting, animism, and personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs. Berkeley (CA): University of California Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Willerslev, R., 2011. Frazer strikes back from the armchair: a new search for the animist soul. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (n.s.) 17, 504–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Willerslev, R., 2013. Taking animism seriously, but perhaps not too seriously? Religion and Society: Advances in Research 4, 4157.CrossRefGoogle Scholar