Scientists date Australia’s oldest rock shelter painting

A multidisciplinary team of scientists from The University of Western Australia and The University of Melbourne, working with Aboriginal Traditional Owners, has successfully dated a 17,000 year old kangaroo rock painting in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

The rock painting, found on the Unghango clan estate in Balanggarra Country in the north-eastern Kimberley, is the oldest known painting still on the wall of a rock shelter in Australia.The dating results were published in Nature Human Behaviour.

The work is part of Australia’s largest rock art dating project, funded through an Australian Research Council Linkage Project led by Professor Andy Gleadow at The University of Melbourne called Dating the Aboriginal rock art sequence of the Kimberley in NW Australia.

Researchers are aiming to develop a time scale for Aboriginal rock art in the Kimberley.UWA archaeologists Sven Ouzman, Peter Veth and Sam Harper are working in partnership with Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation and the Kimberley Land Council, and dating specialists from the Universities of Melbourne, Wollongong, Manchester and the Australian National Science and Technology Organisation, and partners Rock Art Australia and Dunkeld Pastoral.

The 17,000-year-old kangaroo rock painting – along with 15 others – was dated using radiocarbon dating on mud wasp nests over and under the artworks – an exciting new technique pioneered by The University of Melbourne geochronologist Dr Damien Finch.

Dr Sven Ouzman, from UWA’s School of Social Sciences and one of the project’s chief investigators, said the rock painting would unlock further understanding of Indigenous cultural history.

“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,” Dr Ouzman said.

“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.

“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.”

Cissy Gore-Birch, Chair of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, said partnerships were important to integrate traditional knowledge with science, to preserve Australia’s history and cultural identity.

“It’s important that Indigenous knowledge and stories are not lost and continue to be shared for generations to come,” Ms Gore-Birch 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.”

Professor Peter Veth, a chief investigator and Chair of Archaeology at UWA, said the painting held great significance.

“The preservation of Kimberley rock art in open contexts for such extraordinary periods of time is remarkable, confirming that this is one of our most significant cultural estates – one actively curated by Traditional Owners until the present.”

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