Oldest Australian rock painting

An image of a kangaroo has been identified as Australia’s oldest known rock painting, dated to over 17,000 years old.

The two-metre-long kangaroo is painted on the ceiling of a rock shelter on the Unghango clan estate, in Balanggarra country in the north-eastern Kimberley region, WA.

A research team led by Damien Finch from the University of Melbourne used radiocarbon dating to determine the ages of mud-wasp nests below and above the painting. 

“In these old paintings, the ochre pigment used is an iron oxide,” says Finch. “It cannot be dated with any of the current scientific dating techniques. The alternative is to date any suitable material found directly under or on top of the painting. In our work we date mud-wasp nests that are commonly found in rock shelters in northern Australia.”

The team found nests below the painting were 17,500 years old, while nests above it were 17,100 years old. This means the painting is in between these two date ranges, “most likely 17,300 years old”, according to Finch.

There is older evidence of rock painting in Australia, but not “in-situ” – that is, still on a cave or rock wall. “Two very old fragments of rock with ochre or charcoal lines have been discovered in archaeological excavations in northern Australia,” says Finch.

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Research team preparing to collect samples of mud wasp nests. Credit: Sven Ouzman, Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation

“While they could be pieces of paintings that have fallen from rock shelter walls, neither can be unambiguously classified as a rock-art painting. Nonetheless, they are evidence of the use of ochre on rock going back 42,000 years.”

“It’s important that Indigenous knowledge and stories are not lost and continue to be shared for generations to come,” says Cissy Gore-Birch, chair of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation. “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 team has previously used mud-wasp nests before to identify the age of paintings nearby in the region. Those paintings were from the Gwion Gwion Period – a more recent style than this kangaroo. 

“In the generally accepted Kimberley stylistic sequence of a rock painting, as refined by the research of others over the last 30 years, the oldest is the Naturalistic period that we are reporting for the first time now,” says Finch. “The Gwion period is the second oldest.”

Their research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

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