Ngarinyin Pathway Project

The Ngarinyin are the largest and central language group of the plateau region of the north-west Kimberley, Australia. With their neighbours the Worrora and the Wunambal–Gaambera, who share the same Wanjina–Wungurr law, they are custodians of the region. Thousands of years of living have accumulated a dense layering, of multiple generations, of imagery throughout the land. These symbols of inherited identity mark country with images of local identity that divide the landscape under Wunan law.

Wunan law began when visionary artist Wilbama created the sacred object of justice. One day, the two heroes, Wodoi and Jungan visited the artist Wilbama, but he was away hunting. Wilbama’s wife, Nyamanbiligi, gave the men permission to look at the artist’s workshop but the men took the sacred object. When Wilbama returned and discovered it gone he chased Wodoi and Jungan; he found their tracks in the stone ground. Once they met, the three men decided together that since the object was now liberated it must be shared out amongst the people and they called a conference. These men were Kamali nomads; the ancestors of the Ngarinyin. The conference brought people from the desert; Arnhemland and all north Western Australia into the Kimberley. The seventeen clans that gathered decided the moiety kinship groupings that share land though marriage and thereby divide the landscape under Wunan law. On return to their homelands the people adopted the cross marriage agreement between Wodoi and Jungun thus originating moeity kinship. This seminal conference, that began the Wunan, created localised sedentary identity thereby ending the nomadic era for the Kamali ancestors.

The positions of the seventeen clan representatives remain symbolically marked with signal stones that encircle the Wunan table at Dududu.ngarri. From this early time began the marking of law and land through art. This function of art to perpetuate ideas of law, enduring time, is powerfully evident in the numerous Gwion Gwion rock paintings and Wanjina icons throughout Ngarinyin country. The narrative of the Wunan embedded in the rock art speaks a united history of social evolution common to numerous Aboriginal language groups embracing about one third of the Australian continent.

Many painted images are established legal documents in themselves; their actual presence and location signify each of over forty dambun or inherited districts that subdivide the country under Wunan law. The complex patchwork of binary population distribution between two moeity ‘skins’ across the Kimberley region demanded a great variety of human images to reflect moiety kinship relationships. The Wunan restriction to identity connecting person and place in perpetuity is the key to reading most images of human form (If you do not know the country you cannot understand the rock art).


The Gwion artists invented extensions of the human figure to signify connections to local flora and fauna. Apart from these personal images of ancestral identity, artists also recorded their history though millennia producing numerous scenes of cultural events as layers interwoven within the durable fabric of permanent occupation and relationship to land. Art continues to inform and communicate legal, familial and environmental responsibilities.

Through the Wunan people are fixed to country; cultural expressions with ceremony; song; language; and a vast network of ancient figurative rock art.

Forced sedentary existence under Wunan limited casual travel and cultural messages evolved to compensate, hence the ongoing exchange of sacred objects and ideas. Where Wunan kinship influences reach beyond the Kimberley region–far into east Arnhemland and the central desert–marking other landscapes demanded other solutions such as petroglyphs, and temporary mediums like wood and fibre. Most sacred objects were not possessed exclusively but distributed for influence, and on occasions demanding special apparel as sometimes illustrated in Gwion Gwion art. Cultural and ethical concepts that circulated widely in Wunan networks inevitably entered into the Kimberley, just as some originated there.

Legal identity with country alone did not embrace or express all of life’s big questions for the Ngarinyin and their neighbours. Human curiosity eventually inspired a complicated cosmology around natural elements associated within ancestral origins inside country that are expressed only from Wanjina icons. Wanjina was born through Wunan kinship genealogy which made each family perpetually associated with Wanjina and permanent sources of life giving water. From Wanjina the wungud or essence of life stems giving energy to all things.

… this Wunan was created …

then everybody had their own symbols … own blocks of land …

we don’t talk about it … without looking at the symbol

Because it’s controlling us … that Wunan symbol

you know … that table …