Check Out Australia’s Oldest Cave Paintings

Scientists recently confirmed Australia’s earliest known rock art: a kangaroo that was painted during the last ice age.
February 23, 2021, 8:28am
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Photo by Getty/Tobias Titz

A large painting of a kangaroo located in a remote sandstone shelter is thought to be Australia’s oldest known rock art, after scientists confirmed the faded image is about 17,300 years old.

The two-metre-long artwork, daubed in a mulberry-coloured, ochre-based paint on the ceiling of a rock shelter in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, was dated using a radiocarbon technique that analysed fossilised wasp nests located both underneath and on top of the pigment. 

Rock art is notoriously difficult to date, as the paint used often doesn't contain enough organic commands to be analysed using current methods. By analysing the charcoal in the surrounding wasp nests, however, archaeologists and traditional owners were able to confirm that the kangaroo was completed between 17,500 and 17,100 years ago, when the Earth was emerging from the last ice age. It was painted by the ancestors of the Balanggarra people.

“At that time you are coming to the end of the last ice age and in the Kimberley it seems to have been really dry and things were tough,” the study’s co-author Dr Sven Ouzman, from the University of Western Australia, told The Guardian. “But still, people are painting.”

Traditional owners were already well aware of the kangaroo painting, as well as the multiple other animal and human-like images analysed in the dating project—but until now, the age of those artworks was a mystery.

“It’s something that all tribes want to know—how old are our paintings?” Ian Waina, traditional owner and Kwini man, told the ABC. “And tourists always ask too, but many Aboriginal people have had no idea. What we've done now with the scientists is open up the gate to find out.”

Scientists looked at 16 paintings in eight rock shelters around the same area for the study, which was published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour on Monday. Specifically, the paper analysed artworks in the naturalistic style, which typically depicts animals, fish, flowers and plants in profile, filled with lines and solid-coloured limbs and painted in red or mulberry.

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It is one of the oldest known phases of paintings documented in the Kimberley region—and the kangaroo image is now the oldest known example.

But Damien Finch, a PhD student at the University of Melbourne and lead author of this week’s paper, thinks there could be earlier pieces of artwork still yet to be found.

“These are the first dates on paintings in that style that have been published. There haven’t been any others,” he said. “So chances are that there are older paintings there.”

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