Scientists say a painting of a life-size kangaroo on the ceiling of a rock shelter in the Kimberley is the oldest known rock art painting in Australia.
The University of Melbourne confirmed the two-metre-long artwork in a sandstone rock shelter in Western Australia’s remote Kimberley region has been sitting there since the Ice Age.
Researchers say the kangaroo was painted between 17,500 and 17,100 years ago, making it the oldest known work of rock art in Australia.
It had been covered by thousands of ancient mud wasp nests, allowing them to establish the minimum and maximum age for the artwork.
Cave paintings have long been cited as early evidence of human art but it has been proven a challenge to date paintings older than 6000 years.
That’s because the organic material in the paint pigment – which is crucial for radiocarbon dating – is hard to find.
“This is a significant find as through these initial estimates, we can understand something of the world these ancient artists lived in,” said Postdoctoral Researcher Dr Damien Finch.
Dr Finch said it was rare to find mud wasp nests both overlying and underlying a single painting.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
In total, the radiocarbon dating technique was used on 27 mud wasp nests underlying and overlying 16 different paintings from eight rock shelters to show paintings of this style were produced between 17,000 and 13,000 years ago.
One of the project’s chief investigators, Dr Sven Ouzman, said the rock painting would unlock further understanding of Indigenous cultural history.
“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,” Dr Ouzman said.
Cissy Gore-Birch, Chair of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, said it was important that Indigenous knowledge and stories were not lost and continued to be shared for generations to come.
“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,” she said.