New dating techniques reveal Australia's oldest known rock painting, and it's a kangaroo

February 22, 2021

A two-metre-long painting of a kangaroo in Western Australia's Kimberley region has been identified as Australia's oldest intact rock painting.

Using the radiocarbon dating of 27 mud wasp nests, collected from over and under 16 similar paintings, a University of Melbourne collaboration has put the painting at 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 exciting 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. 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."

The Kimberley-based research is part of Australia's largest rock art dating project, led by Professor Andy Gleadow from the University of Melbourne. It involves the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, the Universities of Western Australia, Wollongong, and Manchester, the Australian National Science and Technology Organisation, and partners Rock Art Australia and Dunkeld Pastoral.

Published today in Nature Human Behaviour, Dr Finch and his colleagues detail how rock shelters have preserved the Kimberley galleries of rock paintings, many of them painted over by younger artists, for millennia - and how they managed to date the kangaroo rock painting 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 Balanggarra country, above the Drysdale River in the north-eastern Kimberley region of Western Australia.

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. For this painting they 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."

Dr Sven Ouzman, from University Western Australia's School of Social Sciences 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 South East 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 partnerships were important to integrate traditional knowledge with western science, to preserve Australia's history and cultural identity.

"It's important that Indigenous knowledge and stories are not lost and continue to be shared for generations to come," Ms 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."

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


University of Melbourne

Related Kangaroo Articles from Brightsurf:

Researchers boost koala spotting system
QUT researchers have published an improved and innovative method for estimating the number of koalas in an area detected by using drones and an artificial intelligent algorithm as they continue the quest of identifying surviving koala populations in bushfire areas.

Skin-to-skin 'kangaroo care' shows important benefits for premature babies
A world-first study led by Monash University has demonstrated significant benefits to a premature baby's heart and brain function when held by the parent in skin-to-skin contact.

Mother/infant skin-to-skin touch boosts baby's brain development and function
As the world prioritizes social distancing due to COVID-19, research shows that extended use of Kangaroo Care, a skin-to-skin, chest-to-chest method of caring for a baby, can positively benefit full-term infants and their mothers, with important implications for post-partum depression.

I spy with my digital eye ... a tiger's breathing, a lion's pulse
A pilot study undertaken by researchers from the University of South Australia at Adelaide Zoo, has developed a new way to undertake basic health checks of exotic wildlife using a digital camera, saving them the stress of an anaesthetic.

Sugar ants' preference for pee may reduce greenhouse gas emissions
An unlikely penchant for pee is putting a common sugar ant on the map, as new research from the University of South Australia shows their taste for urine could play a role in reducing greenhouse gases.

Kangaroo mother care reduces infant mortality
When newborn babies with low birth weight are held close to their mother's bodies throughout the day, their chance of survival increases substantially.

Kangaroo Island shows burn scars on one third of the land mass
NASA's Terra satellite provided before and after imagery that showed the extent of the fires that have been ravaging Australia's Kangaroo Island.

It's time to explain country in indigenous terms
It's time to write about Indigenous Australian place relationships in a new way -- in a language that speaks in Indigenous terms first, to convey a rich meaning of Country and best identify its deep ecological and social relevance to Aboriginal people.

Giant kangaroo had crushing bites
An in-depth analysis of the skull biomechanics of a giant extinct kangaroo demonstrates that the animal had a capacity for high-performance crushing of foods, suggesting feeding behaviors more similar to a giant panda than a modern-day kangaroo.

Blood samples from the zoo help predict diseases in humans
Penguins, Asian elephants and many other animal species live in the zoos of Saarbr├╝cken and Neunkirchen.

Read More: Kangaroo News and Kangaroo Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.