Ancient wasp nests show Australia’s oldest rock painting is 17,000-year old kangaroo image

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

The age of the ancient work of art was determined through a new technique in which 27 mud wasp nests, collected from over and under 16 similar paintings, were radiocarbon dated.

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

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

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

The line painting of the kangaroo, which is about 2 metres in length, was painted on the sloping ceiling of a rock shelter on the Unghango clan estate in Balanggarra country, above the Drysdale River in the northeastern Kimberley region of Western Australia.

It is just one image among many in the region’s “galleries” of rock paintings, which researchers believe were repeatedly painted over by generations of artists, for millennia.

Earlier researchers looked at the stylistic features of the paintings and the order in which they were painted when they overlapped, and were able to work out from there that the oldest style of painting is what’s known as the Irregular Infill Animal or the Naturalistic period, which often features 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 both overlying and underlying a single painting.

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For this painting, researchers were able to sample both types to establish the minimum and maximum age for the artwork.

“We radiocarbon dated three wasp nests underlying the painting and three nests built over it to determine, confidently, that 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 initial estimates we can understand something of the world these ancient artists lived in.

“We can never know what was in the mind of the artist when he/she painted this piece of work more than 600 generations ago, but we do know that the Naturalistic period extended back into the last Ice Age, so the environment was cooler and dryer than today.”

Dr Sven Ouzman, from the University of Western Australia and one of the project’s chief investigators, said the rock painting would unlock further understanding of indigenous cultural history.

“This iconic kangaroo image is visually similar to rock paintings from islands in southeast Asia dated to more than 40,000 years ago, suggesting a cultural link – and hinting at still older rock art in Australia,” Dr Ouzman said.

Cissy Gore-Birch, chair of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, said: “It’s important that indigenous knowledge and stories are not lost and continue to be shared for generations to come.”

“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.”

The next step for the researchers, who are aiming to develop a time scale for Aboriginal rock art in the Kimberley region, is to date further wasp nests in relation to this and other styles of Kimberley rock art to establish, more accurately, when each art period began and ended.

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The research is published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.


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