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Last News | Scientists find kangaroo painted over 17,000 years ago to be Australia’s oldest rock painting

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A painting of a kangaroo in Western Australia is the oldest known rock art in the country, according to scientists, who say analysis of radiocarbon dating shows it was created over 17,000 years ago.

The depiction of the kangaroo was one of a number of cave paintings first recorded by researchers in the 1990s in the Kimberley region, which is home to one of the largest collections of indigenous rock art in the world. Scientists from several universities and research agencies worked with local Indigenous leaders to analyze the paintings, their findings being published Monday in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

The works of art painted on rocks are among the earliest recorded attempts at human communication, with some of the oldest examples of animal representations found in Sulawesi, Indonesia. However, it has proven difficult to date paintings over 6,000 years old because the organic matter in the paint pigment – which is crucial for radiocarbon dating – is hard to find.
So, the Australian team used wasp nests instead.

A rare depiction of a human figure from Kimberley’s earliest painting style. Credit: Pauline Heaney and Damien Finch

They found the remains of 27 ancient mud wasp nests – which can be radiocarbon dated – above and below 16 different cave paintings, according to the document.

The strategy is simple: if the nests are built on top of the rock art, the art must be older. If the art is built on nests, the nests must be older. The dating of these nests thus gives scientists a minimum and maximum age for cave paintings.

The main source of carbon in these nests, which are partly made of mud, is from fragments of charcoal. There were frequent bushfires in the area that burned short-lived vegetation like grass, so most nests contained relatively new charcoal when they were built.

Old nests also often contain plant material or insect fragments that the parent wasps collect for the larvae to feed on, all of which contain carbon.

Last News | Scientists find kangaroo painted over 17,000 years ago to be Australia’s oldest rock painting

A painting of a snake on a rock shelter wall in Kimberley, with many other paintings painted on it. Credit: Pauline Heaney and Damien Finch

By dating wasp nests, the authors of this study established that the majority of paintings were made between 17,000 and 13,000 years ago. Some of the earliest paintings include an image of a boomerang and a rare depiction of a human figure lying on its back. Others have depicted animals, including a snake, a lizard-like figure, and three macropods – the marsupial family which includes kangaroos, wallabies, and quokkas.

The kangaroo painting was dated between 17,100 and 17,500 years ago. It was painted on the sloping ceiling of a rock shelter, housing thousands of wasp nests of fossilized mud.

“Many other dates from this period are needed before the full chronological extent of the paintings still visible today can be determined,” the researchers wrote.

This study is part of Kimberley’s largest multidisciplinary rock art encounter project, which uses several different technologies to study the evolution of rock art and the natural landscape.

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