A life size red ochre kangaroo painting has been discovered in Australia. The ancient artwork has been dated to around 17,300 years old and the researchers are calling it “the oldest dated painted figure in an Australian rock shelter.” What can it tell us about the ancient history of Australia?
The Kimberley region of Western Australia is sparsely settled and known for large swaths of rugged mountain ranges and deep gorges. Set amidst a semi-arid savanna and greatly isolated coastline, the region contains thousands of rock paintings similar to the one that features in this article.
Dating such images has always been a problem for researchers. But now, professor Damien Finch from the University of Melbourne has dated a series of ancient paintings in eight rock shelters in Balanggarra Country, which lies in the north-eastern Kimberley region.
Finch and his colleagues worked in conjunction with the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation , which represents the traditional owners of the land. Rock cannot be dated because it is not organic, but what did contain ancient data was “the radiocarbon signal from ancient wasp nests that lie beneath and on top of the artwork.” The kangaroo was discovered painted on a rock behind the nests, that when dated are said to have been created some where between “17,500 and 17,100 years ago.”
Cissy Gore-Birch, Chair of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, said that this rock painting “is the oldest known painting in an Australian rock shelter .” The painted kangaroo is about 2 meters (6.56 ft) in length and it was one of 15 other images that were analyzed during the recent project.
According to an article in the New Scientist , the team of researchers also measured a 3-meter-long (3.28 ft) snake, “and a lizard-like creature,” as well as other kangaroo-like animals. It was concluded that this “naturalistic style” of animal paintings proliferated in this region for Australia between 17,000 and 13,000 years ago.
While this kangaroo painting represents Australia ‘s oldest rock painting inside a shelter, or cave, humans arrived around 65,000 years ago so it’s far from the first art works ever discovered in Australia. In 2009 Antiquity published an article about the discovery of rock art , including engravings, or carvings, depicting now extinct megafauna such as Genyornis and Thylacoleo from the Pleistocene era.
While the discovery of the 17,300-year-old kangaroo painting is indeed a remarkable find, it falls way short of the impact of Jeff During’s 2000 work: Gwion Gwion: Secret and Sacred Pathways of the Ngarinyin Aboriginal People of Australia . This research presents what is “the oldest firmly dated rock art painting in Australia.”
This unique charcoal drawing was discovered on a rock fragment found during the excavation of the Narwala Gabarnmang rock shelter in south-western Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory in the 1990s which was dated “at 28,000 years old.” This location is described as “one of the oldest known pieces of rock art on Earth with a confirmed date”.
The 17,300-year old kangaroo painting is far from being Australia ’s oldest known rock art , but what it does do is further illustrate the emerging picture of life in Australia during the Paleolithic. Cave art has been discovered in caves in Spain dated to 65,000 years ago, and according to National Geographic this “includes the oldest cave art ever found” that predates the arrival of modern Homo sapiens to Europe, which means someone else must have created them.
And that someone else were the Neanderthals, who were painting in caves around the same time we Homo sapiens were arriving on the shores of Oz.
Damien Finch, the lead author of the research paper, pioneered a method of testing mud wasp nets with carbon dating. To date the kangaroo, the researchers used the fossilized mud wasp nests surrounding the painting. After deciphering the specific layer of ocher belonging to the kangaroo (under more recent artwork), the team tested a nest below the ocher as well as one above. This gives a date range for when the kangaroo was drawn.
The results suggested the kangaroo is between 17,500 and 17,100 years old, with 17,300 years old being the best estimate. The team was lucky to find nests providing such a close date range. “This makes the painting Australia’s oldest known in-situ painting,” Finch said.
According to Cissy Gore-Birch, Chair of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, partnership and knowledge sharing are critical to preserving this history. Gore-Birch commented, “It’s important that Indigenous knowledge and stories are not lost and continue 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.”
By Ashley Cowie