A life size kangaroo painted in red ochre around 17,300 years ago is Australia’s oldest known rock art. This indicates that the earliest style of rock art in Australia focused on animals, similar to the early cave art found in Indonesia and Europe.
Thousands of rock art sites are found all over Australia, with the Kimberley region of Western Australia containing a particularly rich record. But dating the images is challenging as the minerals and organic material needed to determine when the art was created are hard to find.
Stylistically, Australian rock art has been categorised into five different phases, with the oldest thought to be the so-called naturalistic phase depicting mainly animals and sometimes plants such as yams. But with no firm dates, no one knew for sure.
Now, Damien Finch at the University of Melbourne and his colleagues have dated the images in eight rock shelters in Balanggarra Country, which lies in the north-eastern Kimberley region. Finch and his colleagues worked with the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, which represents the Traditional Owners of the land, and members of the Corporation reviewed their research paper.
They dated the images by measuring the radiocarbon signal from ancient wasp nests that lie beneath and on top of the artwork.
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They discovered that a kangaroo image (pictured above) on the ceiling of a rock shelter containing thousands of ancient mud wasp nests was painted between 17,500 and 17,100 years ago. “This is an amazing site, with wonderful paintings all over the place,” says Finch. And, crucially for the dating, “wasps have been building nests at this site pretty much consistently for 20,000 years“, he says.
This kangaroo painting is around 2 metres long, with details of its fur depicted within an outline of its shape.
“The dating of this oldest known painting in an Australian rock shelter holds a great deal of significance for Aboriginal people and Australians and is an important part of Australia’s history,” said Cissy Gore-Birch, Chair of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, in a media statement.
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Analysis of 15 other images, including a 3-metre-long snake and a lizard-like creature, as well as other kangaroo-like animals, showed that this naturalistic style of animal paintings proliferated between 17,000 and 13,000 years ago.
After this, it seems to have been superseded by the so-called Gwion style of rock art, which predominantly features images of humans. A 2020 study by Finch, also using wasp nest dating, showed that this style of art proliferated from around 12,000 years ago.
The kangaroo is unlikely to be Australia’s oldest painting. Humans may have reached Australia as early as 65,000 years ago and the researchers have studied a tiny number of images in the rock art. “We have only worked on a fraction of the Kimberly. The chances are we haven’t found the oldest painting,” says Finch.
Journal reference: Nature Human Behaviour, DOI: 10.1038/s41562-020-01041-0