Australia’s Oldest Known Rock Art is a 17,300-Year-Old Kangaroo Painting

Kangaroo Rock Painting Aboriginal Art Kimberly Australia

The 17,300-year-old rock art painting juxtaposed with an illustration. (Photo: Damien Finch)

Australia is famous for its kangaroos. These cute marsupials have been a feature of the landscape for thousands of years and are an important part of Aboriginal history and culture. Confirming this is a recent discovery made by researchers in Western Australia. They found a 17,300-year-old painting of a kangaroo in a rock shelter in the Kimberley area, which is a place known for prolific rock art spanning thousands of years. Publishing their findings in the journal Nature Human Behavior, the team detailed the creative means used to learn more about this ancient rock art.

The kangaroo painting was discovered on the ceiling of a rock shelter, which has helped preserve the artwork for thousands of years. The shelter was on the Unghango clan estate in Balanggarra country. The Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation brought their long-held knowledge to the research—in conjunction with several universities and organizations—in a collaborative project to date rock art in the region. Two meters in length, the kangaroo is among other drawings which fall into the Naturalistic period of local rock art. Life-sized animals drawn in red ochre are typical of this late-Ice Age artwork.

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.”

Researchers in Australia have discovered a 17,300-year-old rock art painting of a kangaroo, making it the country's oldest known rock art.

Mud Wasp Nests Kimberly Aboriginal Art

Photographing mud wasp nests that are used to date the artwork. (Photo: Stan Samantzis)

Kimberly Rock Art

The Kimberley rock shelter housing the kangaroo drawing. (Photo: Damien Finch)

h/t: [BBC]

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Madeleine Muzdakis

Madeleine Muzdakis is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met and a historian of early modern Britain & the Atlantic world. She holds a BA in History and Mathematics from Brown University and an MA in European & Russian Studies from Yale University. Madeleine has worked in archives and museums for years with a particular focus on photography and arts education. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, film photography, and studying law while cuddling with her cat Georgia.
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