Kangaroo painting identified as oldest known rock art in Australia

The figure was dated at more than 17,000 years old using the remains of ancient wasp nests

Traditional owner, Ian Waina, recording the 17,300 year old painting of a kangaroo. Courtesy Peter Veth/ Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation
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A painting of a kangaroo has been identified as the oldest known work of rock art in Australia after a dating technique using ancient wasp nests confirmed it was more than 17,000 years old.

New research, published in Nature Human Behaviour on Monday, used the radiocarbon dating of 27 fragments from mud wasp nests, collected from under and over 16 similar paintings, to accurately date the motifs.

The two-metre long kangaroo, situated on the ceiling of a rock shelter in Balanggarra country in the north-eastern Kimberley region of Western Australia, is typical of Naturalistic period, which often features life-sized animals. It was placed at between 17,500 and 17,100 years old.

It's important that Indigenous knowledge and stories are not lost and continue to be shared for generations to come

Other similar artworks - including images of a snake, a lizard-like figure, and several marsupials - were found to be between 13,000 and 17,000 years old.

It comes after archaeologists discovered the world's oldest known cave  painting earlier this year - a life-size picture of a wild pig on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi that is at least 45,500 years old.

Dating the Kimberley works is a crucial milestone in establishing the time scale of Aboriginal rock art in the region in order to protect it from the increasing threats of environmental degradation and climate change.

“It’s important that Indigenous knowledge and stories are not lost and continue to be shared for generations to come,” Cissy Gore-Birch, Chair of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, said. “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.”

Postdoctoral researcher Damien Finch, the lead author on the article, said Kimberley rock art was poorly understood both in Australia and the rest of the world.

“Threats to this globally significant heritage are increasing as the climate changes and development in the region increases,” he said.

Accurately identifying the age of rock art is very difficult as it is rare to find organic materials in the paint pigment that can be used for radiocarbon dating.

Dr Finch, who pioneered the technique used, said the painting was unique in that researchers were able to find fragments of mud wasp nests both overlying and underlying the work, meaning they could establish a minimum and maximum age.

Lower part of the painting on the sloping ceiling of 17,300 year old kangaroo. Courtesy Damien Finch
The lower part of the painting on the sloping ceiling of the rock shelter. Courtesy Damien Finch

“It has long been thought that paintings in the Naturalistic style of Kimberley rock art dated back to the Last Ice Age, but no paintings from this period had ever been scientifically dated, until now,” he said. “This is a significant find as through these initial estimates, we can understand something of the world these ancient artists lived in."

The research is part of Australia’s largest rock art dating project, led by Professor Andy Gleadow from the University of Melbourne in partnership with the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, the Universities of Western Australia, Wollongong, and Manchester, the Australian National Science and Technology Organisation, and partners Rock Art Australia and Dunkeld Pastoral.

One of the project's chief investigators, Sven Ouzman from University Western Australia’s School of Social Sciences, said the kangaroo painting was visually similar to older rock paintings from islands in South East Asia, suggesting a cultural link and "hinting at still older rock art in Australia".

“Dating rock art more accurately means we can better understand how Aboriginal people lived from their beginning right up to the present, where rock art is still being made and Country managed," Dr Ouzman said.

“Indeed, this rock painting makes us reconsider what it means to be ‘Australian’, combining everyone’s personal history with the deep time stewardship of the country by Aboriginal people.”

The new research comes amid rising tensions over the impact of Western Australia’s lucrative mining industry on important cultural sites in the north of the state.

Mining company Rio Tinto caused an international furore in 2020 by blowing up 46,000-year-old rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara – a region about 700km south of the Kimberley – in order to extract $188m worth of high-grade iron ore.

The public backlash that followed led to the resignation of Rio Tinto CEO, Jean-Sebastien Jacques, and two other executives.

A federal inquiry into the scandal heard last week that the lack of protection of Aboriginal culture and heritage was a daily challenge for traditional owners in Australia, the Guardian reported.

Anne Poelina, chair of Fitzroy Martuwarra council in Western Australia, told the inquiry that groups trying to protect Western Australia’s largest Aboriginal heritage site, the Fitzroy River, were facing “enormous pressure”.

“Unjust, invasive colonial development comes to communities in such a way that we don’t have time to respond in the way we want to, to such massive development," Dr Poelina said.