Australia’s oldest rock art is a 17,000 year old image of a jumping kangaroo

A large cave painting depicting a jumping kangaroo has been shown to be more than 17,000 years old. This makes it Australia’s oldest intact rock painting.

The age of the old work of art was determined by a new technique that involved radiocarbon dating of 27 mud wasp nests, collected from over and under 16 similar paintings.

Research by a team from the University of Melbourne confirmed that the painting is between 17,500 and 17,100 years old.

“This makes the painting Australia’s oldest known in-situ painting,” said postdoc Dr. Damien Finch, who pioneered the new radiocarbon technology.

“This is a significant find as through these first estimates we can understand something of the world in which these ancient artists lived.

The line image of the approximately 2 meter long kangaroo was painted on the sloping ceiling of a rock shelter on the Unghango clan estate in the Balanggarra country above the Drysdale River in the northeast of the Kimberley region in Western Australia.

It’s just one picture among many in the region’s “galleries” of rock art, which researchers believe have been repainted by generations of artists for thousands of years.

Previous researchers examined the stylistic features of the paintings and the order in which they were painted when they overlapped, and from there they were able to find that the oldest painting style is what is known as the irregular filler, or the naturalistic period, which often shows life-size animals. This kangaroo is a typical example of paintings in this style.

Dr. Finch said it was rare to find mud wasp nests above and below a single painting.

For this painting, the researchers were able to examine both types to determine the minimum and maximum ages for the artwork.

“We have three wasp nests underlying the painting and three radiocarbon nests built over them to ensure the painting is between 17,500 and 17,100 years old – most likely 17,300 years old,” he said.

“This is a significant find as through these first estimates we can understand something of the world in which these ancient artists lived.

“We never know what the artist was thinking when he / she painted this work more than 600 generations ago, but we know that the naturalistic period dates back to the last Ice Age, so the environment was cooler and drier than it is today. “

Dr. Sven Ouzman of the University of Western Australia and a lead researcher on the project said the rock painting would provide a further understanding of indigenous cultural history.

“This iconic kangaroo image visually resembles rock art from islands in Southeast Asia made more than 40,000 years ago, suggesting a cultural connection – and suggesting even older rock art in Australia,” said Dr. Ouzman.

Cissy Gore-Birch, Chairwoman of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, said, “It is important that indigenous knowledge and stories are not lost and passed down through generations.”

“The dating of this oldest known painting in an Australian rock shelter is of great importance to Aborigines and Australians and an important part of Australian history.”

The next step for researchers looking to develop a timescale for Aboriginal rock art in the Kimberley is to date additional wasp nests related to this and other styles of Kimberley rock art to more accurately determine when each art was Period began and ended.

The research is published in the journal Nature human behavior.

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