Scientists have confirmed that a painting of a kangaroo in a sandstone refuge in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia is approximately 17,300 years old, making it the oldest known rock art in Australia.
The faded image, which is about two meters long, was dated using a radiocarbon technique that analyzed wasp nests below and above the ocher-based paint.
Augustine Unghango, a Balanggarra man and traditional owner of the area, has scaled the cliff above the Drysdale River and visited the painting many times.
“It really lifted my spirits when I found out how old I was. It is important that we do this, ”he said.
The research, published Tuesday in the journal Nature Human Behavior, shows that the ocher kangaroo was completed when Earth was emerging from an ice age and the ocean was more than 100 meters lower than it is today.
The painting site is about 70 km offshore, but at the time it was painted, the northwest coast was more than 200 km further.
Study co-author Dr Sven Ouzman of the University of Western Australia said that several Australian rock paintings were between 10,000 and 15,000 years old, but the find near the Drysdale River was the oldest in its original location.
“At that point you are reaching the end of the last ice age and in Kimberley it seems to have been very dry and things were difficult. But still, people are painting, ”he said.
Evidence of older art has been found in Australia, but they were rock fragments or pieces of pigment.
Ouzman said the person or persons who painted the kangaroo “had to be linked to the commercial network” at that time to obtain the materials.
Research published earlier this year found that the world’s oldest rock painting was a life-size representation of a 45,000-year-old pig on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia.
The Sulawesi painting is similar in style to the kangaroo and Ouzman said there could be a cultural link between the two.
Unghango said that kangaroos were culturally important and that young people follow them into the desert as part of an initiation.
The research was led by Dr Damien Finch, a geochronologist at the University of Melbourne who developed the technique of using wasp nests to date rock art.
For the research, Finch and his colleagues looked at 16 paintings in eight rock shelters in the same area and analyzed 27 mud wasp nests. Finch has been visiting the kangaroo painting site since 2015.
“You go under a slope and it’s on the roof, it’s a bit narrow,” he said.
“You can’t see everything at once. It is slowly revealed because there are so many [wasp] nests. It takes a while to put the eye on and absorb the pigment. “
The fossilized nests are mostly sand, but they also contain carbon particles, which Finch says are most likely from burned spinifex grass.
By dating the charcoal in the nests, some below the painting and some above, the researchers were able to establish two dates between which the painting had to be completed.
Finch said the intention was not to find the oldest painting, but to accumulate dates for a period of rock art known as naturalistic that is dominated by images of animals and occasionally plants.
Cas Bennetto of the nonprofit Rock Art Australia that helped fund the research said the discovery was an “exciting story” but that “there will be more.”
He thought further research could push the Kimberley rock art era beyond 30,000 years.
“Our purpose is to understand the history of human habitation in Australia and we do so through rock art and its different contexts,” said Bennetto.
Further research will aim to set dates for the naturalistic rock art style, which came before a style known as Gwion, which made human figures popular.