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Guess Which Animal Is in Australia’s Oldest Rock Painting, Dating Back 17,000 Years

In Western Australia’s northeast Kimberley area, on Balanggarra Country, a two-metre-long portray of a kangaroo spans the sloping ceiling of a rock shelter above the Drysdale River.


In a paper printed at the moment in Nature Human Behaviour, we date the paintings as being between 17,500 and 17,100 years outdated – making it Australia’s oldest identified in-situ rock portray.

We used a pioneering radiocarbon courting approach on 27 mud wasp nests underlying and overlying 16 totally different work from 8 rock shelters. We discovered work of this fashion have been produced between 17,000 and 13,000 years in the past.

Our work is a part of Australia’s largest rock artwork courting initiative. The challenge relies in the Kimberley, one of many world’s premier rock artwork areas. Here, rock shelters have preserved galleries of work, typically with generations of youthful paintings painted over older work.

By finding out the stylistic options of the work and the order in which they have been painted after they overlap, a stylistic sequence has been developed by earlier researchers primarily based on observations at 1000’s of Kimberley rock artwork websites.

They recognized 5 principal stylistic intervals, of which the latest is the acquainted Wanjina interval.

Styles in rock artwork

The oldest fashion, which incorporates the kangaroo portray we just lately dated, typically options life-sized animals in define type, infilled with irregular dashes. Paintings in this fashion are mentioned to belong to the “Naturalistic” stylistic interval.

The ochre used is an iron oxide in a red-mulberry color. Unfortunately, no present scientific courting methodology can decide when this paint was utilized to the rock floor.


A unique strategy is up to now fossilised insect nests or mineral accretions on the rock surfaces that occur to be overlying or underlying rock artwork pigment. These dates present a most (underlying) or minimal (overlying) age vary for the portray.

Our courting suggests the primary interval for Naturalistic work in the Kimberley spanned from a minimum of 17,000 to 13,000 years in the past.

The oldest identified Australian rock portray

Very hardly ever, we’ll discover mud wasp nests each overlying and underlying a single portray. This was the case with the portray of the kangaroo, made on the low ceiling of a well-protected Drysdale River rock shelter.

We have been in a position to date three wasp nests underlying the portray and three nests constructed on prime of it. With these ages, we decided confidently the portray is between 17,500 and 17,100 years outdated; almost certainly near 17,300 years outdated.

file 20210207 19 16m2uyf(Picture by Damien Finch. Illustration by Pauline Heaney)

Our quantitative ages help the proposed stylistic sequence that implies the oldest Naturalistic fashion was adopted by the Gwion fashion. This fashion featured work of embellished human figures, typically with headdresses and holding boomerangs.

From animals and crops to folks

Research we printed final yr exhibits Gwion work flourished about 12,000 years in the past – some 1,000-5,000 years after the Naturalistic interval.

file 20210207 24 106nv5j(Pauline Heaney, Damien Finch)

Above: This map of the Kimberley area in Western Australia exhibits the shoreline at three distinct factors in time: at the moment, 12,000 years in the past (the Gwion interval) and 17,300 years in the past (the sooner finish of the identified Naturalistic interval).

With these dates, we are able to additionally partially reconstruct the surroundings in which the artists lived 600 generations in the past. For instance, a lot of the Naturalistic interval coincided with the tip of the final ice age when the surroundings was cooler and drier than now.


During the Naturalistic interval, 17,000 years in the past, sea ranges have been a staggering 106 metres under at the moment’s and the Kimberley shoreline was about 300 kilometres additional away, greater than half the gap to Timor.

Aboriginal artists presently typically selected to depict kangaroos, fish, birds, reptiles, echidnas and crops (significantly yams). As the local weather warmed, ice caps melted, the monsoon was re-established, rainfall elevated and sea ranges rose, generally quickly.

By the Gwion interval round 12,000 years in the past, sea ranges had risen to 55m under at the moment’s. This would undoubtedly have prompted long-term adjustment to territories and social relations.

This is when Aboriginal painters depicted extremely embellished human figures, bearing a placing resemblance to early Twentieth-century images of Aboriginal ceremonial gown. While crops and animals have been nonetheless painted, human figures have been clearly the preferred topic.

Reaching into the previous

While we now have age estimates for extra work than ever earlier than, extra work is continuous to seek out out, extra precisely, when every artwork interval started and ended.

For instance, one minimal age on a Gwion portray suggests it could be greater than 16,000 years outdated. If so, Gwion artwork would have overlapped with the Naturalistic interval however additional dates are required to be extra sure.


Moreover, it is extremely unlikely the oldest identified Naturalistic portray we dated is the oldest surviving one. Future analysis will virtually actually find even older works.

For now, nonetheless, the 17,300-year-old kangaroo is a sight to marvel at.

Acknowledgements: we want to thank the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, the Australian National Science and Technology Organisation, Rock Art Australia and Dunkeld Pastoral Co for his or her collaboration on this work. The Conversation

Damien Finch, Postdoctoral Researcher, The University of Melbourne; Andrew Gleadow, Emeritus Professor, The University of Melbourne; Janet Hergt, Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor, The University of Melbourne, and Sven Ouzman, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology and Centre for Rock Art Research + Management, University of Western Australia.

This article is republished from The Conversation below a Creative Commons license. Read the unique article.


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