Scientists Just Realized This Incredible Painting of a Kangaroo Is 17,500 Years Old, Making It Australia’s Oldest Known Rock Art

Scientists were able to determine the art's age using radiocarbon dating on wasps’ nests that surround the paintings.

A photograph of the kangaroo rock painting and a drawing of it. Photo by Damien Finch. Drawing by Pauline Heaney.

A team of Australian scientists working in the country’s Balanggarra region say that a painting of a kangaroo on the ceiling of a sandstone rock shelter may be as many as 17,500 years old, which would make it the continent’s oldest known rock art. They published their findings in a paper on Tuesday in the journal Nature Human Behavior

The paper is authored by a team of 10 experts, led by geochronologist Damien Finch, of the University of Melbourne.

The scientists were able to determine the dates based on radiocarbon dated mud wasps’ nests that lay both over and under the painting. This technique has been used to assign dates to figurative rock art paintings in Spain, Indonesia, and Australia. These findings lend support to the proposition that the oldest rock art paintings are naturalistic renderings of animals.

Animal paintings were all the rage in this area of Australia for about 4,000 years, between 17,000 and 13,000 years ago. Following that came the so-called Gwion style, which was more focused on images of humans.

The site is abundant with paintings, and there’s reason to believe that experts could identify paintings that are even older, since “wasps have been building nests at this site pretty much consistently for 20,000 years,” Finch, who developed the technique by which wasp nests are used to date rock art, told New Scientist. “We have only worked on a fraction of the Kimberly [region]. The chances are we haven’t found the oldest painting.”

“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,” said Cissy Gore-Birch, chair of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, in a statement. Finch and his colleagues worked with the corporation and the paper was reviewed by its representatives, New Scientist notes.

Kangaroos were culturally important, with young people following them into the desert as part of a rite of initiation, Sven Ouzman, a co-author of the paper, told the Guardian, which notes that when the ancient artist painted the kangaroo, Earth was emerging from an ice age and the oceans were more than 300 feet lower than today.

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