Oldest Cave Art In Australia Has Been Found And, Of Course, It's A Kangaroo

Traditional owner, Ian Waina, recording the 17,300-year-old painting of a kangaroo. Image credit: Peter Veth, Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation

The oldest-known Aboriginal rock painting has been identified in Australia and – to no surprise – it’s a drawing of a kangaroo. The findings are detailed in a new study reported in the journal Nature Human Behaviour today. 

Researchers have recently been studying a treasure trove of rock art found at eight rock art sites in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Among this gallery of artworks, there are a wide variety of murals depicting animals, including a snake, a lizard-like figure, and three macropods (the iconic family of marsupials that includes kangaroos, wallabies, and quokkas). 

Together with the Aboriginal Traditional Owners of the sites, scientists at the University of Melbourne set out to put dates on the artworks in an attempt to uncover a more detailed timeline for this creative activity. However, assigning dates to these paintings is no easy feat, since ancient Aboriginal artists often paint using ochre pigments made from iron oxide, which can’t be dated easily as it contains no organic material.

To overcome this hurdle, the researchers turned to an ingenious tried-and-tested method: instead of dating the painting, they dated the remains of ancient mud wasp nests which have been painted over. By dating wasp nests above and beneath the painting, the artwork of the kangaroo-like creature was dated between 17,500 to 17,100 years ago, making it the oldest painted figure in Australia to date.

“This makes the painting Australia’s oldest known in-situ painting,” Dr Damien Finch, a postdoctoral researcher from the University of Melbourne and lead author of the study, said in a statement

Cave art.
A rare depiction of a human figure from the oldest style of painting in the Kimberley, dated to over 9,000 years old. Image credit: Pauline Heaney and Damien Finch

The kangaroo is painted on the sloping ceiling of a rock shelter on the Unghango clan estate in Balanggarra country, in the north-eastern Kimberley region of Western Australia. Along with its remarkable age, the style of painting also caught the attention of the researchers. Its life-size scale and subject matter are typical of the Irregular Infill Animal or the Naturalistic period. As the researchers explain, this gives some valuable insight into the culture of the people who painted this piece and even raises the possibility that older works may still be out there in Australia.

“This is a significant find as through these initial estimates, we can understand something of the world these ancient artists lived in. 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,” Dr Finch explains.

“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,” added Dr Sven Ouzman, one of the project’s chief investigators from University Western Australia's School of Social Sciences.

Beyond Australia, a range of older figurative paintings have been rediscovered in recent times. Just last month, archeologists revealed what appears to be the oldest figurative artwork ever created by humans: a 45,500-years-old doodle of a fat-bellied pig.


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