Scientists discover kangaroo painted more than 17,000 years ago is Australia’s oldest rock painting

The kangaroo depiction was one of a series of rock paintings first recorded in the 1990s by researchers in the Kimberley area, home to one of the world’s largest collections of indigenous rock art. Scientists from several universities and research agencies worked with local indigenous leaders to analyze the images. Their results were published on Monday in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

Art painted on rocks is one of the earliest recorded attempts at human communication. Some of the oldest examples of animal representations were found in Sulawesi, Indonesia. However, dating paintings that are more than 6,000 years old has proven to be challenging, as organic material in the color pigment – which is vital to radiocarbon dating – is difficult to find.

They found the remains of 27 ancient mud wasp nests – which can be dated using radiocarbon – above and below 16 different rock art.

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

The main source of carbon in these nests, some of which are made from mud, is charcoal fragments. There were frequent bush fires in the area that burned short-lived vegetation such as grass. As a result, most of the nests when built contained relatively young charcoal.

The ancient nests also often contain plant material or insect fragments that parent wasps have collected for the larvae to feed, all of which contain carbon.

A painting of a snake on a cliff in Kimberley that many other paintings have been painted over.

By dating the wasp nests, the authors of this study found that most paintings were made 17,000 to 13,000 years ago. Some of the oldest paintings include a picture of a boomerang and a rare depiction of a human figure lying on its back. Others featured animals, including a snake, a lizard-like figure, and three macropods – the marsupial family that includes kangaroos, wallabies, and quokkas.

The kangaroo painting was dated 17,100 to 17,500 years ago. It was painted on the sloping ceiling of a rock shelter that is home to thousands of petrified mud wasp nests.

“Much more data from this period is required before the full chronological extent of the paintings still visible today can be determined,” the researchers wrote.

This study is part of the larger multidisciplinary Kimberley Rock Art Dating project, which uses various technologies to examine the evolution of rock art and the natural landscape.

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