Guess Which Animal Is in Australia’s Oldest Rock Portray, Relationship Again 17,000 Years

In Western Australia’s northeast Kimberley area, on Balanggarra Nation, a two-metre-long portray of a kangaroo spans the sloping ceiling of a rock shelter above the Drysdale River.


In a paper revealed at the moment in Nature Human Behaviour, we date the paintings as being between 17,500 and 17,100 years previous – making it Australia’s oldest recognized in-situ rock portray.

We used a pioneering radiocarbon courting method on 27 mud wasp nests underlying and overlying 16 completely different work from 8 rock shelters. We discovered work of this fashion had been produced between 17,000 and 13,000 years in the past.

Our work is a part of Australia’s largest rock artwork courting initiative. The mission is predicated within the Kimberley, one of many world’s premier rock artwork areas. Right here, rock shelters have preserved galleries of work, typically with generations of youthful paintings painted over older work.

By finding out the stylistic options of the work and the order wherein they had been painted after they overlap, a stylistic sequence has been developed by earlier researchers primarily based on observations at 1000’s of Kimberley rock artwork websites.

They recognized 5 major stylistic durations, of which the newest is the acquainted Wanjina interval.

Types in rock artwork

The oldest fashion, which incorporates the kangaroo portray we just lately dated, typically options life-sized animals in define type, infilled with irregular dashes. Work on this fashion are mentioned to belong to the “Naturalistic” stylistic interval.

The ochre used is an iron oxide in a red-mulberry color. Sadly, no present scientific courting methodology can decide when this paint was utilized to the rock floor.


A unique method is to this point fossilised insect nests or mineral accretions on the rock surfaces that occur to be overlying or underlying rock artwork pigment. These dates present a most (underlying) or minimal (overlying) age vary for the portray.

Our courting suggests the primary interval for Naturalistic work within the Kimberley spanned from at the very least 17,000 to 13,000 years in the past.

The oldest recognized Australian rock portray

Very not often, we’ll discover mud wasp nests each overlying and underlying a single portray. This was the case with the portray of the kangaroo, made on the low ceiling of a well-protected Drysdale River rock shelter.

We had been capable of date three wasp nests underlying the portray and three nests constructed on high of it. With these ages, we decided confidently the portray is between 17,500 and 17,100 years previous; most definitely near 17,300 years previous.

(Image by Damien Finch. Illustration by Pauline Heaney)

Our quantitative ages assist the proposed stylistic sequence that means the oldest Naturalistic fashion was adopted by the Gwion fashion. This fashion featured work of embellished human figures, typically with headdresses and holding boomerangs.

From animals and vegetation to folks

Analysis we revealed final yr reveals Gwion work flourished about 12,000 years in the past – some 1,000-5,000 years after the Naturalistic interval.

file 20210207 24 106nv5j(Pauline Heaney, Damien Finch)

Above: This map of the Kimberley area in Western Australia reveals the shoreline at three distinct cut-off dates: at the moment, 12,000 years in the past (the Gwion interval) and 17,300 years in the past (the sooner finish of the recognized Naturalistic interval).

With these dates, we are able to additionally partially reconstruct the atmosphere wherein the artists lived 600 generations in the past. For instance, a lot of the Naturalistic interval coincided with the top of the final ice age when the atmosphere was cooler and drier than now.


Through the Naturalistic interval, 17,000 years in the past, sea ranges had been a staggering 106 metres under at the moment’s and the Kimberley shoreline was about 300 kilometres additional away, greater than half the space to Timor.

Aboriginal artists right now typically selected to depict kangaroos, fish, birds, reptiles, echidnas and vegetation (significantly yams). Because the local weather warmed, ice caps melted, the monsoon was re-established, rainfall elevated and sea ranges rose, generally quickly.

By the Gwion interval round 12,000 years in the past, sea ranges had risen to 55m under at the moment’s. This may undoubtedly have prompted long-term adjustment to territories and social relations.

That is when Aboriginal painters depicted extremely embellished human figures, bearing a putting resemblance to early Twentieth-century images of Aboriginal ceremonial costume. Whereas vegetation and animals had been nonetheless painted, human figures had been clearly the preferred topic.

Reaching into the previous

Whereas we now have age estimates for extra work than ever earlier than, extra work is continuous to seek out out, extra precisely, when every artwork interval started and ended.

For instance, one minimal age on a Gwion portray suggests it might be greater than 16,000 years previous. If that’s the case, Gwion artwork would have overlapped with the Naturalistic interval however additional dates are required to be extra sure.


Furthermore, it is extremely unlikely the oldest recognized Naturalistic portray we dated is the oldest surviving one. Future analysis will nearly definitely find even older works.

For now, nonetheless, the 17,300-year-old kangaroo is a sight to marvel at.

Acknowledgements: we wish to thank the Balanggarra Aboriginal Company, the Australian Nationwide Science and Know-how Organisation, Rock Artwork Australia and Dunkeld Pastoral Co for his or her collaboration on this work. The Conversation

Damien Finch, Postdoctoral Researcher, The College of Melbourne; Andrew Gleadow, Emeritus Professor, The College of Melbourne; Janet Hergt, Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor, The College of Melbourne, and Sven Ouzman, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology and Centre for Rock Artwork Analysis + Administration, College of Western Australia.

This text is republished from The Dialog beneath a Inventive Commons license. Learn the unique article.


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