The oldest-known Australian Aboriginal rock painting depicts a kangaroo-like animal and was created over 17,000 years ago, reports a paper published in Nature Human Behaviour.
Art painted on rocks represents some of the earliest recorded attempts at human communication. Australian Aboriginal rock paintings often depict naturalistic animals, but assigning dates to these paintings has been a challenge, as organic material in the paint pigment—crucial for radiocarbon dating—is hard to find.
Damien Finch and colleagues worked together with Aboriginal Traditional Owners from the Kimberley region in Western Australia to analyse the rock art specimens. They found that some rock paintings had the remains of ancient wasp nests, which can be radiocarbon dated, above and below the painted images. By dating the wasp nests, the authors were able to establish paintings in this style were produced between 17,000 and 13,000 years ago. The majority of the images were depictions of animals, including a snake, a lizard-like figure, and three macropods (a family of marsupials including kangaroos, wallabies, and quokkas), confirming that this artistic style was present for at least 4,000 years at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum. One painting of a kangaroo was dated to between 17,500–17,100 years ago, making it the oldest dated painted figure in Australia to date.
The authors conclude that future research should help to uncover a more detailed timeline for this creative activity.