A 2-m- (6.6-foot) long painting of a kangaroo in a rock shelter in the north-eastern Kimberley region of Western Australia is dated to between 17,500 and 17,100 years on the basis of the ages of three overlying and three underlying wasp nests.
Traditional Owner Ian Waina inspecting a naturalistic painting of a kangaroo; the inset is an illustration of the painting above it. Image credit: Peter Veth / Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation / Pauline Heaney.
Throughout the world, rock art records some of the earliest attempts at complex human communication.
In regions in which conditions don’t favor the preservation of organic material, evidence of past human activity is largely limited to micromorphological evidence, stone tools and rock art.
Stone tool usage is placed on the absolute timescale of human development using radiometric dating of the context in which such material is found in the layers of an archaeological excavation.
Unfortunately, radiometric dating techniques are only rarely applicable to older rock art, so the age of this aspect of human creative expression is not as well constrained.
With rare exceptions — for example, in France, where charcoal pigmented art is preserved in deep caves — the remaining pigment in paintings from the Pleistocene period (older than around 11,500 years) contains no materials that can be dated directly.
In the new research, University of Melbourne’s Dr. Damien Finch and colleagues relied on the fortuitous occurrence of dateable mud wasp nests overlying or underlying rock art to provide minimum or maximum age limits for individual motifs in eight separate sandstone rock shelters in the Australian Kimberley region.
They radiocarbon-dated 27 mud wasp nests from 16 motifs to between 17,000 and 13,000 years ago.
Notably, one painting of a kangaroo was between 17,500 and 17,100 years old.
“It was rare to find mud wasp nests both overlying and underlying a single painting,” Dr. Finch said.
“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.”
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.
“This makes the painting Australia’s oldest known in-situ painting,” Dr. Finch said.
“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 rock painting would unlock further understanding of Indigenous cultural history,” said Dr. Sven Ouzman, a researcher at the University Western Australia.
“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.”
“The painting holds great significance,” said Professor Peter Veth, a researcher at the University Western Australia and the University of Wollongong.
“The preservation of Kimberley rock art in open contexts for such extraordinary periods of time is remarkable, confirming that this is one of our most significant cultural estates — one actively curated by Traditional Owners until the present.”
The results are published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.
D. Finch et al. Ages for Australia’s oldest rock paintings. Nat Hum Behav, published online February 22, 2021; doi: 10.1038/s41562-020-01041-0