Researchers have discovered that a six-foot-tall painting of a kangaroo on the ceiling of a rock shelter was created between 17,500 and 17,100 years ago, making it the oldest known untouched art in Australia. While the images had been familiar to scholars since the 1990s (and are likely to have been known for much longer by Aboriginal populations), their age was unknown due to the limitations of meeting rock art.
The researchers, who published their work in the journal Nature Human Behavior, however, were able to date the paintings using an innovative technique that relied on wasp nests. Because mud wasps have inhabited the cave for tens of thousands of years, the team was able to use radiocarbon dating to determine the age of the 27 nests found below and at the top of the 16 paintings. Jessie Yeung reports for CNN that ancient nests contained coal from fires, as well as fragments of plant and animal material, all containing carbon that can be dated. Because the large kangaroo had nests both above and below it, it was possible to determine a very specific range of dates when it could have been produced.
USA TodayDoyle Rice reports that the team was also able to date somewhat newer antique paintings in the area, including a snake, a lizard-like creature and additional marsupials like kangaroos. The painters used ocher which produced a reddish mulberry pigment, which came from the presence of iron oxide.
“This is a significant discovery because through these initial assessments, we can understand something from the world in which these ancient artists lived,” the lead researcher Damien Finch, an earth science researcher from the University of Melbourne says in a declaration. “We can never know what was on the artist ‘s mind when he / she painted this piece of work more than 600 generations ago, but we do know that the naturalistic period stretched into the last ice age, so the environment it was cooler and drier than today. ”
Study of paintings in Kimberly the region is part of a cooperation that includes Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, which represents the area’s traditional indigenous landowners, as well as the universities of Melbourne and Western Australia, and Australian National Science and Technology Organization.
Combining the dating of wasp nests with information on how the paintings overlap allows scholars to place them within the artistic history of the region that researchers have previously documented. Like other images from what is called the “naturalistic” period or “irregular stuffed animal,” some of the newly dated art features life-size animal sketches partially filled with irregular stripes.
As researchers write in Following, when the artist created the kangaroo painting, sea levels were much lower than they are now, which meant that Kimberley’s shoreline was about 190 miles away from rock formation than it is today. As the environment shifted over the next 5,000 years, indigenous art styles also changed. The dominant style from about 12,000 years ago, known as the Gwion Gwion, features more human figures, often wearing headscarves and holding boomerangs. These antique descriptions resemble the Aboriginal ceremonial dress found in photographs from the early 20th century. Rock art is important for transmitting culture to many indigenous Australian societies.
“Importers’s important that indigenous knowledge and stories are not lost and continue to be shared for generations to come.” Cissy Gore-Birch, the chairman of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, says in the statement. “Meeting this oldest known painting in an Australian rock shelter has great significance for Aboriginal people and Australians alike and is an important part of Australia’s history.”
Sven Ouzman, an archaeologist at the University of Western Australia who was part of the research, says the art style hints at links between indigenous Australians and other ancient people.
“This kangaroo portrait image is visually similar to rock paintings from islands in Southeast Asia dating back more than 40,000 years, suggesting a cultural connection – and hinting at even older art in Australia,” he says in the statement.
Ancient people arrived in Australia on one or more migrations from Southeast Asia, beginning at least 55,000 years ago, each year Australian Museum.
Researchers plan to continue their work using wasp nests to date additional art pieces, creating a more definitive timeline of the evolution of different styles.
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