World news – New dating techniques reveal Australia’s oldest known rock art, and it is a kangaroo


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February 22, 2021

from the University of Melbourne

A two meter long painting of a kangaroo in the Kimberley region of Western Australia has been identified as Australia’s oldest intact rock painting.

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Using radiocarbon dating of 27 mud wasp nests collected from over and under 16 similar paintings, a collaboration at the University of Melbourne ruled the painting 17,500 and 17,100 years old.

« That is the painting Australia’s oldest known in-situ painting, « said postdoctoral fellow Dr. Damien Finch, who pioneered the exciting new radiocarbon technology.

« This is a significant discovery as through these initial estimates we can understand something of the world these ancient artists lived in. We never know what the artist thought he / she painted this work over 600 generations before, 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. « 

The one in Kimberley resident research is part of Australia’s largest rock art dating project led by Professor Andy Gleadow of the University of Melbourne. The Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, the universities of Western Australia, Wollongong and Manchester, the Australian national science and technology organization and the partners Rock Art Australia and Dunkeld Pastoral are involved.

Dr. Finch and colleagues, published today in Nature Human Behavior, describe how rock shelters preserved the Kimberley Galleries of rock art, many of which were painted over by younger artists, for millennia – and how they got it done, kangaroo rock art dated as Australia’s oldest known in-situ painting.

The kangaroo is painted on the sloping ceiling of a rock shelter on the Unghango clan estate in the Balanggarra country above the Drysdale River in the northeastern Kimberley region of Western Australia. </ Earlier 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 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, you could try both types to determine the minimum and maximum age for the artwork.

« We dated three radiocarbon wasp nests on which the painting is based and three nests built over them to make sure that the painting is between 17,500 and 17,100 years old; most likely 17,300 years old. « 

Dr. Sven Ouzman of the University of Western Australia’s School of Social Sciences and one of the project’s lead investigators said the rock art would provide a better understanding of indigenous cultural history.

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

Cissy Gore-Birch, chairwoman of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, said partnerships are important to incorporate traditional knowledge into Western science and to preserve Australia’s history and cultural identity.

« It’s important that the knowledge and the stories of the indigenous people are not lost and passed on through generations, « said Gore-Birch. « 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 developing a timescale for Aboriginal rock art in Kimberley want is to date more wasp nests in contact with this and other styles of Kimberley rock art in order to more accurately identify each art period began and ended.

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