Australia’s oldest known rock art is a 17,300-year-old kangaroo painting

Australian scientists declare a 17,300-year-old painting of a kangaroo as the country’s oldest known rock art. Ancient wasp nests that surround the rock were used to date the 2-metre long artwork.

The discovery was made in a sandstone rock shelter in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, which is known for its rich record of Aboriginal rock paintings. “It really lifted my spirits up when I found out how old it was. It’s important that we do this,” remarked Augustine Unghango, a Balanggarra man and traditional owner of the area.

Painted in red ochre, the naturalistic work shows an outstretched kangaroo with bushy fur alongside 15 other images of animals, including a 3-metre-long snake. This style of animal painting was made in Australia between 17,000 and 13,000 years ago, although it is visually similar to rock paintings from South East Asia that date to more than 40,000 years ago.

Scientists ascertained its exact date by tracking the radiocarbon signal from ancient mud wasp nests lying beneath and on top of the artwork. The technique is precise but is not commonly used since wasp nests are so rare to find.

Wasps have been building nests at this site pretty much consistently for 20,000 years,” explained Damien Finch, who pioneered the mud wasp dating technique. “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.”

At the time the painting was created, the last ice age was coming to an end in the Kimberley. Co-author Dr Sven Ouzman, from the University of Western Australia revealed “it seems to have been really dry and things were tough. But still, people are painting.”

In a press conference this week, Chair of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation Cissy Gore-Birch said, “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.”

But researchers believe they have only studied a tiny proportion of the rock art existing in Australia, since humans reached the country as early as 65,000 years ago. As recently as October 2020, a new style of aboriginal rock art was discovered across an 80-mile stretch of northern Australia’s Arnhem Land. Finch added “we have only worked on a fraction of the Kimberly. The chances are we haven’t found the oldest painting yet.”

The findings were published on 23 February 2020 in the journal ‘Nature Human Behaviour’.

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