cycles of social cultureThe assemblage of mythosociology over 50,000 years as rock art on escarpments of Arnhem Land adjacent to the tropical, central-northern coast of Australia, gives graphic testimony to the interaction of mythosociological women's and men's archetypes. Anthropologist George Chaloupka (1993:40), an internationally acknowledged authority in the field of rock art and resident of Darwin, indicates that at the commencement of the era, "the sea levels were much lower than they are now and Australia was connected by a broad plain to New Guinea. The climate was also different from the present regime, with rainfall, temperature and humidity being considerably lower than today". At the end of the Ice-Ages, between 6,500 BP (Before Present) and 7,000 BP, the seas rose rapidly, separating Australia and New Guinea. A climatological change brought monsoonal rains. Freshwater sediments were deposited over brackish swamps. As the salt leached out, the muds were invaded and stabilized by grasses. Around 1,400 BP, the saltwater channels were choked off and became the freshwater billabongs and paperbark swamps of today.The mythosociological record portrays these changes in sequences of artwork identified by Chaloupka (1993:89) as pre-estaurine (50,000 BP - 8,000 BP), estaurine (8,000 BP - 1,500 BP) freshwater (1,500 BP - 300 BP) and contact [with South-East Asian Makassan communities and with civilization] (300 BP - present). Rock art sequences contain phases of emergence, emancipation and conclusion. A contemporary cycle is the mythosociology of reason. Previous and future cycles are the mythosociology of mythology and religion. Descendants refer to sequences of the past as the work of ancestral beings who "taught their forbears how to paint" (1993:87).Male imagery dominates over much of the pre-estaurine sequence until the appearance of depictions of vegetable produce associated with women's food- gathering activities. The sequence commences with hand and object imprints and progresses to naturalistic figures, dynamic figures, and weapons and figures in conflict, before culminating with the rarely depicted imagery of vegetation in the form of yam figures. Chaloupka (1993:102) notes that with human imagery in the period of large naturalistic figures, "the male is the main subject, the female being seldom depicted". The majority of representations in the period are human. In an unspecified study of 1600 representations of dynamic figures from 241 sites, 1165 (72%) were found to be males, 77 (5%) females, 44 (3%) animal headed beings, 69 (4%) other anthropomorphs, 213 (13%) animal species and seven (0.5%) zoomorphs. Animal and human tracks, trees and enigmatic signs are some of the other objects represented. (Chaloupka, 1993:112)In the post-dynamic period, Chaloupka (1993:125) indicates that "[t]he female is again only a minor subject", adding that in the period of yam figures "[i]t is not until the final stages of this style, when the yam figures attain their fully human form, that they are sexually differentiated" (1993:138).The estaurine sequence corresponds with the emergence of a new cycle in the natural ecology. Male imagery again dominates over much of the sequence until the appearance of the x-ray art style. The sequence commences with animal and spear representations. Human figures, anthropomorphs and non-figurative designs then dominate in a style produced by placing molded beeswax onto rock. The majority of anthropomorphic figures in beeswax are male. Represented are humans, animal-headed beings, the Namarnde figures [malevolent spirits associated with death] and images of other mythical beings in a variety of activities. Only six figures have so far been identified as women. (Chaloupka, 1993:158)The sequence culminates with an intricate version of x- ray art, a style represented throughout all sequences. Chaloupka (1993:168) suggests that with x-ray art at the end of the estaurine sequence, "[d]ecorative female figures, found in shelters across the plateau, were a popular subject for a considerable period of time". The "most graceful figures in the more recent art" (1993:170) are depictions of the female body.The freshwater sequence corresponds with the emergence of a further ecological cycle. Male imagery again dominates over much of the sequence until recent times when women have assisted in the production of artwork. The sequence commences with imagery depicting adaptations developed to manage the bounty of newly established wetlands, including innovative hunting techniques, weapons and watercraft. The didgeridoo, a musical instrument traditionally permitted only to be played by men, is also represented. Portrayals of Makassan culture, a fishing community from the islands of the Indonesian Archipelago, and European culture, dominate in the contact sequence.Over the past half-century, the rock art tradition in the region has largely been transferred to bark painting. Women have taken up responsibilities for artwork previously associated with men. Judith Ryan (1990:19), curator of Aboriginal Art at the National Gallery of Victoria, indicates that "[b]ark painting is no longer the strict preserve of men", as with the Kunwinjku community of western Arnhem Land, in which women have only recently begun to assist male relatives and to paint in their own right.
Sequences of artwork depicting the sexes in the assemblage of Arnhem Land rock art correspond with cycles of ecological change. Commencing and continuing with a dominance of male imagery, they conclude with a dominance of female imagery, consistent with the mythosociological model comprising the predominant assertion of mutant male experimentation in a culture's adaptation to new ecologies, followed by the predominant assertion of progenitor female qualities which turn viable male innovations into social conventions. With ecological change, the relevance of a sequence diminishes and depictions become the mythological and spiritual traditions of the past. Recognition of the influences the sexes bring to bear on the cultural system is contained in women's business and men's business, which gives social equity to each sex throughout ecological cycles.
Women:Ryan, Judith (1990) Spirit in Land: Bark Paintings From Arnhem Land. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria.
Chaloupka, George (1993) Journey in Time. Sydney: Reed