In Western Australia’s northeast Kimberley location, on Balanggarra Nation, a two-metre-extensive painting of a kangaroo spans the sloping ceiling of a rock shelter above the Drysdale River.


In a paper revealed nowadays in Character Human Conduct, we day the artwork as getting among 17,500 and 17,100 many years previous – producing it Australia’s oldest identified in-situ rock portray.

We utilised a groundbreaking radiocarbon dating approach on 27 mud wasp nests underlying and overlying 16 distinctive paintings from 8 rock shelters. We found paintings of this design and style have been generated amongst 17,000 and 13,000 years in the past.

Our function is section of Australia’s major rock artwork relationship initiative. The undertaking is primarily based in the Kimberley, one of the world’s premier rock art locations. Here, rock shelters have preserved galleries of paintings, frequently with generations of youthful artwork painted over more mature perform.

By learning the stylistic attributes of the paintings and the buy in which they ended up painted when they overlap, a stylistic sequence has been produced by before researchers primarily based on observations at hundreds of Kimberley rock artwork web-sites.

They discovered five most important stylistic periods, of which the most new is the familiar Wanjina period of time.

Variations in rock art

The oldest type, which contains the kangaroo painting we just lately dated, generally attributes everyday living-sized animals in outline form, infilled with irregular dashes. Paintings in this type are stated to belong to the “Naturalistic” stylistic interval.

The ochre utilized is an iron oxide in a crimson-mulberry colour. Unfortunately, no current scientific relationship technique can identify when this paint was utilized to the rock floor.


A distinctive strategy is to date fossilised insect nests or mineral accretions on the rock surfaces that take place to be overlying or fundamental rock art pigment. These dates present a maximum (underlying) or minimum (overlying) age array for the portray.

Our dating suggests the major interval for Naturalistic paintings in the Kimberley spanned from at minimum 17,000 to 13,000 a long time ago.

The oldest known Australian rock painting

Incredibly almost never, we will obtain mud wasp nests equally overlying and fundamental a solitary portray. This was the scenario with the portray of the kangaroo, created on the low ceiling of a well-shielded Drysdale River rock shelter.

We were ready to day a few wasp nests fundamental the painting and three nests created on leading of it. With these ages, we decided confidently the portray is involving 17,500 and 17,100 decades previous most most likely near to 17,300 several years previous.

file 20210207 19 16m2uyf(Image by Damien Finch. Illustration by Pauline Heaney)

Our quantitative ages assist the proposed stylistic sequence that implies the oldest Naturalistic design was adopted by the Gwion type. This style highlighted paintings of decorated human figures, frequently with headdresses and keeping boomerangs.

From animals and plants to folks

Study we printed very last calendar year demonstrates Gwion paintings flourished about 12,000 years back – some 1,000-5,000 a long time soon after the Naturalistic interval.

file 20210207 24 106nv5j(Pauline Heaney, Damien Finch)

Above: This map of the Kimberley location in Western Australia exhibits the shoreline at 3 distinct details in time: currently, 12,000 a long time back (the Gwion interval) and 17,300 yrs back (the before close of the acknowledged Naturalistic interval).

With these dates, we can also partially reconstruct the ecosystem in which the artists lived 600 generations in the past. For instance, substantially of the Naturalistic time period coincided with the conclude of the final ice age when the environment was cooler and drier than now.


During the Naturalistic period, 17,000 years back, sea levels had been a staggering 106 metres below present-day and the Kimberley shoreline was about 300 kilometres further more away, a lot more than fifty percent the distance to Timor.

Aboriginal artists at this time usually selected to depict kangaroos, fish, birds, reptiles, echidnas and vegetation (significantly yams). As the weather warmed, ice caps melted, the monsoon was re-founded, rainfall increased and sea stages rose, from time to time swiftly.

By the Gwion period of time around 12,000 decades back, sea amounts had risen to 55m beneath today’s. This would unquestionably have prompted extended-expression adjustment to territories and social relations.

This is when Aboriginal painters depicted hugely decorated human figures, bearing a placing resemblance to early 20th-century images of Aboriginal ceremonial dress. Even though vegetation and animals had been even now painted, human figures ended up clearly the most preferred subject matter.

Reaching into the past

While we now have age estimates for additional paintings than ever right before, more function is continuing to locate out, far more accurately, when just about every artwork period of time started and finished.

For instance, just one minimal age on a Gwion painting implies it could be more than 16,000 years aged. If so, Gwion artwork would have overlapped with the Naturalistic period of time but more dates are required to be more specified.


Moreover, it truly is very not likely the oldest acknowledged Naturalistic portray we dated is the oldest surviving a single. Long term investigate will just about certainly find even more mature operates.

For now, nevertheless, the 17,300-year-previous kangaroo is a sight to marvel at.

Acknowledgements: we would like to thank the Balanggarra Aboriginal Company, the Australian Nationwide Science and Technology Organisation, Rock Art Australia and Dunkeld Pastoral Co for their collaboration on this get the job done. The Conversation

Damien Finch, Postdoctoral Researcher, The University of Melbourne Andrew Gleadow, Emeritus Professor, The University of Melbourne Janet Hergt, Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor, The College of Melbourne, and Sven Ouzman, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology and Centre for Rock Art Investigation + Administration, College of Western Australia.

This report is republished from The Conversation underneath a Innovative Commons license. Study the original posting.