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Australia's Oldest Known Rock Art
Australia's Oldest Known Rock Art
Australia's Oldest Known Rock Art
Australia's Oldest Known Rock Art
New dating techniques reveal Australia’s oldest known rock painting, and it’s a kangaroo
Researchers from the Rock Art Dating and Kimberley Visions project together with Balanggarra Traditional Owners have successfully dated a 17,300 year old kangaroo painting in the Kimberley.

All work undertaken on the Rock Art Australia-funded Dating project, is conducted in the Drysdale River National Park in the Kimberley region of Western Australia in partnership with the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation.
→ Rock Art Australia

The rock art painting is on the Unghango clan estate in Balanggarra Country in the north-east Kimberley. The kangaroo motif is painted in the style of the older rock art paintings in the Kimberley with long irregular brush strokes. The 2 metre naturalistic looking roo is painted on the surface of a collapsed rock shelter ceiling. The roo was painted in ochre used from iron oxide in a red mulberry colour. There is no scientific dating method to date when the paint was applied to the rock surface but the fossilised mud wasp nests built over and under the painting can be dated.

“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,” said Cissy Gore-Birch, Chair of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation.

It is rare to find a rock art painting with mud wasp nests under and over the pigment of a single painting. The kangaroo painting that is in a well-protected rock shelter had three nest underlying the painting and three nests built on top of the painting that were dated. These ages of the nests determine the painting is between 17,500 and 17,100 years old; most likely 17,300 years old. These dates help to reconstruct the environment in which these artists lived around 600 generations ago.

Traditional Owner Ian Waina with the kangaroo painting that was dated between 17,500 and 17,100 years old
Traditional Owner Ian Waina with the kangaroo painting that was dated between 17,500 and 17,100 years old
© Peter Veth and the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation
The painting of this Kangaroo coincided with the Last Ice Age, cooler and drier than it is today. The sea levels were lower, 106 metres below today’s Kimberley coastline. As the climate warmed, rainfall increased and the sea levels rose, Last year the team dated and published the dates for Gwion figures that were painted 12,000 years ago. The sea levels had risen to 55 metres below those of today.

Illustration (a) and composite photo (b) of the 17,300 year old kangaroo painting. Kimberley rock shelter (c) where the 17,300 year kangaroo is painted (d)

Illustration (a) and composite photo (b) of the 17,300 year old kangaroo painting. Kimberley rock shelter (c) where the 17,300 year kangaroo is painted (d)
© Damien Finch and the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, Illustration: Pauline Heaney
Future research will undoubtedly locate older paintings but this 17,300-year-old painting of a kangaroo in the Kimberley is the oldest know intact painting in Australia.

Map of the Kimberley region in Western Australia showing the coastline at three times: today, 12,000 years ago (the Gwion period) and 17,300 years ago (the earlier end of the known Naturalistic period)
Map of the Kimberley region in Western Australia showing the coastline at three times: today, 12,000 years ago (the Gwion period) and 17,300 years ago (the earlier end of the known Naturalistic period)
© Pauline Heaney, Damien Finch

The oldest known Australian Aboriginal figurative rock paintings also commonly depict naturalistic animals
The oldest known Australian Aboriginal figurative rock paintings also commonly depict naturalistic animals but, until now, there was no quantitative scientific evidence to say just how old these paintings are.

llustration: Pauline Heaney

The Rock Art Australia – ARC funded 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 Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, and partners Rock Art Australia and Dunkeld Pastoral company.

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.

Damien Finch collecting mud wasp nest sample
Damien Finch collecting mud wasp nest sample
© Sven Ouzman and the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation

Traditional Owner Ian Waina inspecting a Naturalistic painting of a kangaroo. The inset is an illustration of the painting above it
Traditional Owner Ian Waina inspecting a Naturalistic painting of a kangaroo. The inset is an illustration of the painting above it
© Photo: Peter Veth and the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation

Media Coverage

SBS Radio
The NITV Podcast – Australia’s oldest rock art discovered in the Kimberley.
ABC
Oldest-known Australian rock art is 17,300-year-old kangaroo in the Kimberley, wasp nests show.
ABC AM
Researchers declare WA’s Kimberley region home to Australia’s oldest rock art.
The World
Australia’s oldest art is a 17,300-year-old painting of a kangaroo.
ABC Radio Sydney
Australia’s oldest known in-situ rock painting – so far.
The Guardian
17,300-year-old Kimberley kangaroo recognised as Australia’s oldest rock artwork.
IFLScience
Oldest Cave Art In Australia Has Been Found And – Of Course – It’s A Kangaroo.
UOM Pursuit
Australia’s oldest known Aboriginal rock paintings.
The Conversation
This 17,500-year-old kangaroo in the Kimberley is Australia’s oldest Aboriginal rock painting.
The New Scientist
Australia’s oldest known rock art is a 17,000-year-old kangaroo.
Independent
Australia’s oldest rock painting is 17,000-year-old picture of jumping kangaroo.
The Australian
Roo-minating about our oldest rock art.
Daily Mail
Life-size drawing of a KANGAROO dating back 17,500 years is found in Australia and could be the continent’s oldest rock painting.
BBC
Australia: Oldest rock art is 17,300-year-old kangaroo.

Rock Art Links

→ Australia Rock Art Index
→ Introduction to the Australia Rock Art Archive
→ Rock Art of the Kimberley
→ Dating the Rock Art of the Kimberley
→ Australia's Oldest Known Rock Art
→ Film - Griffith University's Laureate
→ ABC Radio National 'Nightlife'
→  Experts rush to map fire-hit rock art
→ The aftermath of fire damage to important rock art at the Baloon Cave tourist destination, Carnarvon Gorge, Queensland, Australia
→ Studying the Source of Dust
→ The Kimberley
→ Out in the Back Country - Hugh Brown → Rock Art Australia
→ Bradshaw Foundation
→ Rock Art Network

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