In a paper published today by Nature Human Behaviour, we date the art as between 17,500 and 17,100 years old, making it Australia’s earliest known in situ rock painting.

Radiocarbon dating was used to date 27 mud-wasp nests that were under and above 16 different paintings in 8 rock shelters. The paintings in this style date between 17,000 to 13,000 years.

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Our work is part of Australia’s largest rock art dating initiative. The project is based in the Kimberley, one of the world’s premier rock art regions. Here, rock shelters have preserved galleries of paintings, often with generations of younger artwork painted over older work.

Researchers have developed a style sequence based on thousands of Kimberley Rock Art sites.

The Wanjina Period is the most recent of the five periods.

Rock art styles

The oldest style includes the kangaroo paintings we recently dated. It often features animals life-size in outline form with irregular dashes filled in. This style is referred to as “Naturalistic”.

The ochre is an iron oxide with a reddish-mulberry color. Unfortunately, there is no scientific method that can tell when the paint was applied.

Another method is to date mineral accretions or fossilized insect nests on rock surfaces, which may be layered over or beneath rock art pigment. These dates give a range of ages for the painting.

Our dating suggests that Kimberley’s main period of Naturalistic art dates back to at least 17,000-13,000 years ago.

The oldest rock paintings in Australia

Rarely will we find nests of mud wasps on top and underneath a painting. The painting of the kangaroo was made on the low ceiling of a Drysdale River rock cave shelter that is well protected.

Three wasp nests under the painting and three nests on top were dated. We were able to date three wasp nests beneath the image and three nests built on top of it.

On the ceiling of Kimberley’s rock shelter, you can find a 17,300-year-old painting of a kangaroo measuring two meters long. Damien Finch. Illustration by Pauline Heaney

The numerical ages we have determined support the suggested stylistic sequence, which indicates that the Gwion Style was the next oldest style after the Naturalistic style. This style was characterized by paintings of human figures with elaborate headdresses, sometimes holding boomerangs.

Animals and plants, to humans

The research we released last year shows that Gwion painting flourished around 12,000 years ago – about 1,000 to 5,000 years after the Naturalistic Period.

The map shows the Kimberley coastline in Western Australia at three different points in history: now, 12,000 years (the Gwion Period), and 17300 years (the earlier end to the Naturalistic period). Illustration by Pauline Heaney, Damien Finch

These dates allow us to reconstruct the environment that the artists lived in 600 years ago. The Naturalistic period, for example, coincided with the end of the last ice ages when the climate was much cooler and dryer than it is now.

The sea level was 106 meters lower than it is today during the Naturalistic Period, which lasted 17,000 years. Kimberley coast lay about 300 kilometers away and more than half of the distance between Timor and Timberley.

Aboriginal artists of this period often chose to portray kangaroos (and other animals), birds, reptiles, echidnas, and plants, especially yams. As the climate warmed up, the ice caps began to melt, the monsoon reestablished itself, and rainfall increased. Sea levels also rose.

Ian Waina, the traditional owner of the area, is inspecting an ancient painting of a Kangaroo. The age of the image is estimated to be more than 12,700 Years Old based on nests of mud wasps that are located above. Inset: an artist’s recreation of the rock painting in situ. Photo by Peter Veth/Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation. Illustration by Pauline Heaney.

In the Gwion Period, around 12,000 years ago, sea level rose 55m below what it is today. This would have led to a long-term change in territories and social relationships.

Aboriginal painters began to paint highly decorated human forms, which resembled early 20th-century photographs of Aboriginal ceremony dress. Human figures were the most popular subjects, even though plants and animals continued to be painted.