In 1838 a party led by Captain George Grey stumbled across some paintings in the Kimberley district of Western Australia that have been the subject of controversy ever since. Exploring among hills near the Prince Regent River, Grey’s party found a number of caves in which some extraordinary figures were painted. Describing the main painting in the second cave Grey investigated, Grey wrote in his journal that:
It was the figure of a man, ten feet 6 inches [3.2 metres] in length, clothed from the chin downwards in a red garment, which reached to the wrist and ankles… The face and head of the figure were enveloped in a succession of circular bandages or rollers … these were coloured red, yellow and white: and the eyes were the only features represented on the face. Upon the highest bandage or roller, a series of lines were painted in red, but … it was impossible to tell whether they were intended to depict written characters, or some ornament for the head.. Grey went on to say that the paintings:.. had the appearance of being much more defaced, and ancient, than any of the other’s that the party had seen.
These Wandjina (the spirit in the cloud), as the paintings have become known, have given rise to many theories. Anthropologists are satisfied that the paintings are consistent with Aboriginal mythology in the region, but it has also been suggested that the paintings are of a priest dressed in his cassock, perhaps one from a visiting Portuguese or Spanish ship. Some even contend that the Wandjina represent visiting extraterrestrials, with their spherical helmets to protect them from our earthly environment.