At 17,000 years, Australia's oldest painting is of the beloved kangaroo

Doyle Rice, USA TODAY
·3 min read

Australia's oldest rock painting is of the continent's most iconic animal: a kangaroo.

At about 17,000 years old, it's the oldest painting yet discovered in Australia, scientists announced in a study published Monday.

"This is a significant find, as through these initial estimates, we can understand something of the world these ancient artists lived in," lead author Damien Finch of the University of Melbourne said in a statement.

The kangaroo was painted using dark mulberry paint on the sloping ceiling of a rock shelter in the northeastern Kimberley region of western Australia. Other ancient paintings were found in the same region, researchers said.

The Kimberley region is renowned for its rich rock art galleries, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. said. The naturalistic style analyzed in the study is one of the oldest of at least six distinct phases of paintings documented in the region.

The age of the paintings was determined by ancient wasp nests, of all things. Researchers found that some rock paintings had the remains of 27 wasp nests, which can be radiocarbon-dated, above and below the painted images.

By dating the wasp nests, the authors were able to determine that the paintings were done 17,000 to 13,000 years ago.

Ian Waina inspects a painting of a kangaroo, determined to be about 17,300 years old based on the age of overlying mud wasp nests. The inset is an illustration of the painting above it.
Ian Waina inspects a painting of a kangaroo, determined to be about 17,300 years old based on the age of overlying mud wasp nests. The inset is an illustration of the painting above it.

Finch said it was rare to find mud wasp nests overlying and underlying a single painting. Researchers were able to sample the nests to establish the minimum and maximum age for the artwork.

"We radiocarbon-dated three wasp nests underlying the painting and three nests built over it to determine, confidently, that the painting is between 17,500 and 17,100 years old, most likely 17,300 years old," he said.

"We can never know what was in the mind of the artist when he or she painted this piece of work more than 600 generations ago, but we do know that the Naturalistic period extended back into the last ice age, so the environment was cooler and drier than today," Finch said.

Some other images were in the same area: The majority of the paintings were depictions of animals, including a snake, a lizard-like figure and three macropods (a family of marsupials including kangaroos, wallabies and quokkas). Quokkas are animals about the size of a domestic cat.

Sven Ouzman of the University of Western Australia, one of the project's chief researchers, said the rock painting would help broaden the understanding of Indigenous cultural history: "This iconic kangaroo image is visually similar to rock paintings from islands in Southeast Asia dated to more than 40,000 years ago, suggesting a cultural link – and hinting at still older rock art in Australia," Ouzman said in a statement.

Cissy Gore-Birch of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation said: "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."

The study was published Monday in the peer-reviewed British journal Nature Human Behaviour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ancient art: Australia's oldest rock painting is of a kangaroo