Survival, Social Cohesion and Rock Art: The Painted Hands of Western Arnhem Land, Australia

Sally K. May, Luke Taylor, Catherine Frieman, Paul S.C. Taçon, Daryl Wesley, Tristen Jones, Joakim Goldhahn, Charlie Mungulda

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)
51 Downloads (Pure)


This paper explores the complex story of a particular style of rock art in western Arnhem Land known as 'Painted Hands'. Using new evidence from recent fieldwork, we present a definition for their style, distribution and place in the stylistic chronologies of this region. We argue these motifs played an important cultural role in Aboriginal society during the period of European settlement in the region. We explore the complex messages embedded in the design features of the Painted Hands, arguing that they are more than simply hand stencils or markers of individuality. We suggest that these figures represent stylized and intensely encoded motifs with the power to communicate a high level of personal, clan and ceremonial identity at a time when all aspects of Aboriginal cultural identity were under threat.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)491-510
Number of pages20
Issue number3
Early online date1 May 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2020

Bibliographical note

© 2020 McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use,
distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited


  • stylistic chronologies
  • Aboriginal society
  • European settlement


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