Unghango Clan, Balanggarra
Oldest Australian Painting
Australian scientists recently confirmed that a cave painting of a kangaroo, found in a sandstone rock shelter in Western Australia’s remote Kimberley region was painted 17,300 years ago (15,300 BC). This makes it the oldest known Aboriginal rock art in Australia.
This new research relied on the fortuitous presence of dateable mud wasp nests overlying and underlying the pigment. These provided minimum and maximum age limits for numerous items of parietal art in eight separate sandstone rock shelters.
According to Cissy Gore-Birch, Chair of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, the dating of the Kimberley rock art holds a great deal of significance for Aboriginal people and Australians and represents an important part of Australia’s history.
But researchers believe they have studied only a tiny fraction of the prehistoric art in Australia, since humans reached the country as early as 65,000 years ago.
What's more, a new style of aboriginal rock art was only recently discovered across an 80-mile stretch of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.
Meantime, Southern Australia is home to the Koonalda Cave finger flutings, which date to 18,000 BC.
The Kimberley-based research, part of Australia’s most extensive rock art dating project, is led by Professor Andy Gleadow from the University of Melbourne.
It involves the Universities of Western Australia, Wollongong, and Manchester, the Australian National Science and Technology Organisation, the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, as well as Rock Art Australia and Dunkeld Pastoral.
The findings of the research were published on 22 February 2021 in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.
The painting of the Kimberley kangaroo was discovered on the ceiling of a low, well-protected rock shelter, on the Unghango Clan estate in Balanggarra country, above the Drysdale River in the north-eastern Kimberley region of Western Australia.
The archaeological site is located roughly 70 kms from the coast, although at the time the coastline was more than 200 kms further away, as sea-levels were 100 metres lower than they are today.
In addition, scientists consider that the group responsible for the cave painting had to be linked in to the regional trade network of the day, in order to source the ochre pigments and other materials needed.
The archaeological dating project on the Unghango Clan estate was led by Dr Damien Finch, a geochronologist at the University of Melbourne, who had visited the site since 2015.
Finch and colleagues examined sixteen paintings at eight rock shelters in the same area.
Stone Age culture in Australia was greatly influenced by the flora and fauna of the prevailing habitat. Like other modern humans, Aboriginal people were greatly influenced by the animals they hunted, and depicted them in many of their paintings and rock carvings.
Kangaroos leave a set of mirror-image 'tick shapes' from its back paws with a long line between where its tail drags.
As a result, the Aboriginal symbol for a kangaroo in a painting is a linear motif usually consisting of two parallel lines with outward facing barbs that represent the tracks left in the earth by the creature's hind legs.
Sometimes it includes a line in the middle, which represents the trail of the kangaroo's tail.
Kangaroos (bucks, does or joeys) are a regular feature of traditional Aboriginal art, often included as part of a hunting or ‘Dreamtime’ story.
The successful dating of the Unghango Clan estate kangaroo painting was largely due to Damien Finch, who developed the technique of using wasp nests to date the rock art.
It is a relatively precise technique - its only drawback is that paleolithic wasp nests are very hard to find. Fortunately, wasps had been building nests at the site for roughly 20,000 years.
The fossilised nests consist mostly of sand, but they also contain particles of charcoal - believed to originate from burnt spinifex grass.
By dating the charcoal in the nests – some of which lay underneath the painted work, and some above – the Kimberley team was able to establish a maximum and a minimum date for the painting.
In total, 27 mud wasp nests from 16 images were radiocarbon-dated to between 17,000 and 13,000 years ago (15,000-11,000 BC).
The Kangaroo picture was the oldest, and was dated to between 15,500 and 15,100 BC. To make absolutely certain, the team obtained radiocarbon dates from three wasp nests under the painting and three nests over it.
Previously, in 2020, the team had dated a number of Gwion Gwion figures that were created around 10,000 BC. Gwion Gwion rock paintings - also known as Kiro Kiro, or Kujon, or Bradshaws - are one of two major regional traditions of rock art found in the north-west region of Western Australia. The other is Wandjina style art.
At present, the oldest Aboriginal art is the Nawarla Gabarnmang charcoal drawing, dated to 26,000 BC, which was found on a fragment of granite, at a remote rock shelter in Jawoyn Country, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory.
But the 26,000 BC date was a minimum date. It's possible the drawing was created as early as 43,000 BC - when the rock shelter was first occupied.
Support for such a theory comes from findings at other sites in the Northern Territory and elsewhere.
The Sulawesi painting, in particular, is similar in style to the Kimberley Kangaroo image, implying a cultural link between the two.
To understand how the art on the Unghango Clan estate in Balanggarra country fits into the evolution of cave painting, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).
(1) "Ages for Australia’s oldest rock paintings." Damien Finch, Andrew Gleadow, Janet Hergt, Pauline Heaney, Helen Green, Cecilia Myers, Peter Veth, Sam Harper, Sven Ouzman & Vladimir A. Levchenko. Nature Human Behaviour. volume 5, pages 310–318 (2021).
(2) "Human occupation of northern Australia by 65,000 years ago." Clarkson, C. et al. Nature 547, 306–310 (2017).