Thesis abstract ‘Designed Dreaming: Assessing the Relationship between Style, Social Structure and Environment in Aboriginal Australia’

22nd May 2014

Claire Smith
BA(Hons), Department of Archaeology and Palaeoanthropology, University of New England, Armidale, November 1989

This research tested the ‘information exchange’ theory of style in which the degree of homogeneity exhibited by artefacts is related to the nature of social interaction among the producers of those artefacts. The theory is based on the assumption that style is both functional and adaptive. Stylistic homogeneity is interpreted as an adaptation to infertile environments, low population densities and widely ramified social networks. Stylistic heterogeneity is interpreted as an adaptation to fertile environments, high population densities and closed social networks. A number of recent studies of the art of various regions (e.g. Brandt and Carder 1987 for the Horn of Afriia; Gamble 1982 for the European Upper Palaeolithic; Morwood 1984 for Central Queensland Highlands) have interpreted changes in the relative stylistic homogeneity of prehistoric art in terms of changes in the nature of social networks. There had been no explicit ethnographic testing of the theory.

This study tested the theory through a structural analysis of bark paintings from Arnhem Land and acrylic paintings from the Western Desert. Issues addressed within the study included the effect of the gender of the artist on the homogeneity of an art body, and whether art is more homogeneous in sacred or secular contexts. The methodology focused upon the distribution and frequency of variables, the consistency with which motifs are depicted and co-occur, and the clustering of variables.

The results of the analysis showed that the secular art of Arnhem land does show considerably greater heterogeneity than that of the Western Desert. These results generally support the information exchange theory of style. However, it appeared that the sacred art of both regions (and this was assessed through the literature) showed little difference in relative homogeneity. Art systems in which both women and men painted showed a greater potential for heterogeneity than systems in which only one gender produced art. It was concluded that the information exchange theory of style which this dissertation tested may well hold true for secular art, but that it may not hold in a sacred context. The relationships between style, social structure and environment are complex and not open to simple ad hoc application.


Brandt, S.A. and N. Carder 1987 Pastoral rock art in the Horn of Africa: making sense of udder chaos. World Archaeology 19:194–213.

Gamble, C. 1982 Interaction and alliance in Palaeolithic society. Man 17:92–107.

Morwood,  M. 1984 The prehistory of the central Queensland highlands. Advances In World Archaeology 3:325–380.

Smith, C.
Thesis abstract ‘Designed Dreaming: Assessing the Relationship between Style, Social Structure and Environment in Aboriginal Australia’
June 1992
Thesis Abstracts
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