In Western Australia’s northeast Kimberley area, on Balanggarra Nation, a two-metre-long portray of a kangaroo spans the sloping ceiling of a rock shelter above the Drysdale River.
In a paper printed today in Nature Human Behaviour, we date the paintings as being between 17,500 and 17,100 years outdated – making it Australia’s oldest identified in-situ rock portray.
We used a pioneering radiocarbon courting technique on 27 mud wasp nests underlying and overlying 16 completely different work from 8 rock shelters. We discovered work of this fashion have been produced between 17,000 and 13,000 years in the past.
Our work is a part of Australia’s largest rock artwork courting initiative. The venture relies within the Kimberley, one of many world’s premier rock artwork areas. Right here, rock shelters have preserved galleries of work, typically with generations of youthful paintings painted over older work.
By learning the stylistic options of the work and the order through which they have been painted after they overlap, a stylistic sequence has been developed by earlier researchers based mostly on observations at hundreds of Kimberley rock artwork websites.
They recognized 5 important stylistic durations, of which the latest is the acquainted Wanjina interval.
Kinds in rock artwork
The oldest style, which incorporates the kangaroo portray we just lately dated, typically options life-sized animals in define kind, infilled with irregular dashes. Work on this fashion are mentioned to belong to the “Naturalistic” stylistic interval.
The ochre used is an iron oxide in a red-mulberry color. Sadly, no present scientific dating method can decide when this paint was utilized to the rock floor.
A distinct method is so far fossilised insect nests or mineral accretions on the rock surfaces that occur to be overlying or underlying rock artwork pigment. These dates present a most (underlying) or minimal (overlying) age vary for the portray.
Our courting suggests the principle interval for Naturalistic work within the Kimberley spanned from no less than 17,000 to 13,000 years in the past.
The oldest identified Australian rock portray
Very not often, we’ll discover mud wasp nests each overlying and underlying a single portray. This was the case with the portray of the kangaroo, made on the low ceiling of a well-protected Drysdale River rock shelter.
We have been capable of date three wasp nests underlying the portray and three nests constructed on high of it. With these ages, we decided confidently the portray is between 17,500 and 17,100 years outdated; almost definitely near 17,300 years outdated.
Our quantitative ages help the proposed stylistic sequence that means the oldest Naturalistic fashion was adopted by the Gwion fashion. This fashion featured work of embellished human figures, typically with headdresses and holding boomerangs.
From animals and crops to individuals
Analysis we published last year exhibits Gwion work flourished about 12,000 years in the past – some 1,000-5,000 years after the Naturalistic interval.
Above: This map of the Kimberley area in Western Australia exhibits the shoreline at three distinct cut-off dates: at present, 12,000 years in the past (the Gwion interval) and 17,300 years in the past (the sooner finish of the identified Naturalistic interval).
With these dates, we will additionally partially reconstruct the setting through which the artists lived 600 generations in the past. For instance, a lot of the Naturalistic interval coincided with the top of the final ice age when the setting was cooler and drier than now.
Through the Naturalistic interval, 17,000 years in the past, sea ranges have been a staggering 106 metres under at present’s and the Kimberley coastline was about 300 kilometres additional away, greater than half the space to Timor.
Aboriginal artists presently typically selected to depict kangaroos, fish, birds, reptiles, echidnas and crops (notably yams). Because the local weather warmed, ice caps melted, the monsoon was re-established, rainfall elevated and sea ranges rose, typically quickly.
By the Gwion interval round 12,000 years in the past, sea ranges had risen to 55m under at present’s. This may undoubtedly have prompted long-term adjustment to territories and social relations.
That is when Aboriginal painters depicted extremely embellished human figures, bearing a hanging resemblance to early Twentieth-century images of Aboriginal ceremonial dress. Whereas crops and animals have been nonetheless painted, human figures have been clearly the preferred topic.
Reaching into the previous
Whereas we now have age estimates for extra work than ever earlier than, extra work is constant to seek out out, extra precisely, when every artwork interval started and ended.
For instance, one minimal age on a Gwion portray suggests it might be greater than 16,000 years outdated. If that’s the case, Gwion artwork would have overlapped with the Naturalistic interval however additional dates are required to be extra sure.
Furthermore, it is extremely unlikely the oldest identified Naturalistic portray we dated is the oldest surviving one. Future analysis will nearly actually find even older works.
For now, nonetheless, the 17,300-year-old kangaroo is a sight to marvel at.
Acknowledgements: we wish to thank the Balanggarra Aboriginal Company, the Australian Nationwide Science and Expertise Organisation, Rock Artwork Australia and Dunkeld Pastoral Co for his or her collaboration on this work.
Damien Finch, Postdoctoral Researcher, The University of Melbourne; Andrew Gleadow, Emeritus Professor, The University of Melbourne; Janet Hergt, Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor, The University of Melbourne, and Sven Ouzman, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology and Centre for Rock Artwork Analysis + Administration, University of Western Australia.