Australia’s Oldest Known Rock Art is a 17,000-Year-Old Kangaroo

Alison George

New Scientist | February 22, 2021

rock art
A colour-enhanced image of the ancient kangaroo artwork | Damien Finch

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.

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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