Form follows function: a comparative analysis of the gestures depicted in anthropomorphic figures at selected rock art sites in Hawai'i and Australia

Patterson, Carol Breese (2003) Form follows function: a comparative analysis of the gestures depicted in anthropomorphic figures at selected rock art sites in Hawai'i and Australia. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

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Nonverbal communication is inclusive of posture, gesture and proxemic behaviour that is major part of human communication. Therefore, can we observe the gestures, postures and proxemic arrangements displayed in anthropomorphic figures in rock art structured in a way that we can identify patterns and relationships? This thesis sets out to investigate whether these elements displayed in anthropomorphic figures are just random displays or if they are purposeful and reflect cultural symbolic systems. This thesis is not concerned with meaning, but rather patterns that may be meaningful when compared to similar patterns in the ethnography. The systematic analysis examines the rock engravings of selected sites on the island of Hawai'i, Polynesia, and paintings in rock shelters of the Cape York Peninsula, Australia. The methodology is applied to two different culture areas, (Hawaii and Australia), where the subsistence strategies are different (agriculture vs. hunter/gatherer), and where the medium is different (painting and engraving). The purpose is to sample areas where anthropomorphic figures are prevalent and are important within the indigenous tradition of each area.

This thesis examines the gestural, postural and proxemic patterns displayed in anthropomorphic figures through a process of triangulation employing three different approaches: the gathering of ethnographic information from the culture considered responsible for the paintings or engravings, conducting convenient sampling of anthropomorphic figures from selected sites and building an empirical database, and the application of a structural analysis to a selected panel of figures from each study area. Form is divided into categories of body types in each study area: T shape, Stick, Triangle Solid, Triangle Empty and Triangle Open in Hawai'i and; Stick, Full Bodied Stick, and Full Body in Australian. In both culture areas these body types operate as separate modes within a formal visual communication system. Distinct information is conveyed through a selection of form that is limited to these disparate body types. Body forms are not random, but seem to have an underlying structure which dictates their use. Gestures and postures are not random but are found in repetitive patterns that suggest purposeful use. Plasticity is defined by the topographic characteristics that include engraved outline, solidly pecked-out forms, single-line figures and various colour pigments. All of these textural and physical topographical techniques encode meaning.

Proxemic arrangements are used to encode meaning by controlling the spatial relationships between figures within a composition. Cultural definitions of distance define personal and intimate space, as well as private or public space. Patterns emerge from the proxemic arrangements of repeating figures in the Hawaiian example, that mirror cultural constructs such as genealogy and kinship. Similarly, in Australia, the proxemic patterns reflect mortuary ceremonies and totemic relationships. By taking this approach, a better understanding of the patterns and structures embedded within the visual displays by each culture can emerge. This information can then draw upon the similar structures in the ethnographic literature to formulate a better understanding of the rock art. The evidence provided by the two study areas reveal cultural constraints and rules as to how individual figures are presented in rock art in terms of their form, gesture, plasticity and spatial arrangement. The grouping of anthropomorphic figures follows formal patterns depending on the cultural relationships and the intended meaning. Future studies of anthropomorphic figures in rock art could adopt the model of systematic analysis developed here to better understand the nature of symbolic systems in different parts of the world. Studying structures and patterns found in gestures, postures and proxemic arrangements can provide an avenue to the primary 'function' of a visual communication system, which is encapsulated into the 'form', that inevitably follows.

Item ID: 1568
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: rock art; anthropomorphic figures; ethnography; symbolism; proxemics; gestures; postures; indigenous traditions; Hawai'i; Australia; Cape York; paintings; engravings; communication
Date Deposited: 31 Jul 2007
FoR Codes: 16 STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY > 1601 Anthropology > 160104 Social and Cultural Anthropology @ 50%
20 LANGUAGE, COMMUNICATION AND CULTURE > 2002 Cultural Studies > 200201 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Studies @ 50%
SEO Codes: 95 CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING > 9501 Arts and Leisure > 950104 The Creative Arts (incl. Graphics and Craft) @ 34%
95 CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING > 9505 Understanding Past Societies > 950503 Understanding Australias Past @ 33%
95 CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING > 9505 Understanding Past Societies > 950506 Understanding the Past of the Americas @ 33%
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