Oldest Rock Art in Australia Dated to 17,500 Years: It's a Fat Kangaroo

The naturalistic painting of the roo on the ceiling of a rock shelter is a lot like Indonesian art tens of thousands of years earlier

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Ian Waina inspecting a Naturalistic painting of a kangaroo, determined to be more than 12,700 years old based on the age of overlying mud wasp nests
Ian Waina inspecting the painting of the kangaroo, newly dated at more than 17,000 years oldCredit: Photo: Peter Veth and the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, Illustration: Pauline Heaney
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

An ancient painting of a fat kangaroo in Australia has been newly dated: it's about 17,500 years old, making it the oldest rock art in the continent, researchers reported on Monday.

The painting is about two meters (about six feet) long. Its extreme age was determined by radio-carbon dating 27 mud wasp nests situated over and under 16 similar paintings, explains the University of Melbourne. The report on the painting was published in Nature Human Behavior. (Mud wasps build their nests from mud.)

The kangaroo was depicted on the sloping ceiling of a rock shelter, not a cave, above the Drysdale River in Western Australia. Dating rock art is an art in and of itself, and is hard to narrow down: the university places the rock art at between 17,500 and 17,100 years old.

"This makes the painting Australia's oldest known in-situ painting," said Dr. Damien Finch who pioneered the new radiocarbon technique.

When human beings reached Australia is hotly debated. Archaeological sites theoretically dating to more than 50,000 years old are not widely accepted as such. There is a theory that Aboriginal folk-lore still told today stems from observation of an eruption 37,000 years ago.

But while there is no categorical proof of "early arrival" of humans to Australia, experts see a similarity with rock art found in next-door Southeast Asia that is much older. "This iconic kangaroo image is visually similar to rock paintings from islands in Southeast Asia dated back to more than 40,000 years ago, suggesting a cultural link - and hinting at still older rock art in Australia," said Dr Sven Ouzman, from University Western Australia's School of Social Sciences.

In fact the oldest known painting of all – from over 45,500 years ago, was recently identified in Indonesia. It's of a pig.

We cannot have any idea what prehistoric artists had in mind: whether the pig and kangaroo and other animals were venerated, for instance, or whether they were simply drawing the dinner they like to have had. But they are very realistic. That is surely a roo and if anything, from the photograph, it looks like a mother with a baby in her pouch.

The  study research was part of a rock art dating project led by Prof. Andy Gleadow from the University of Melbourne. It involves the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, the Universities of Western Australia, Wollongong, and Manchester, the Australian National Science and Technology Organization, and partners Rock Art Australia and Dunkeld Pastoral.

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