Australia’s oldest work of cave art is a kangaroo, painted more than 17,000 years ago by aborigines and dated through analysis of such ancient wasp nests, a study found on Monday.
The artwork, painted in a realistic style reproducing the animal in its true dimensions, was found along with depictions of other animals on the ceiling of a rock shelter in the Kimberley region (Northwest Australia). .
Even though the indigenous populations have resided in the area for ancestral times, it is very difficult to date their works of art.
“The main obstacle (…) is that they rarely used a pigment allowing dating with current techniques”, explained to AFP Damien Finch, geochronologist at the University of Melbourne and author of the study published in Nature Human Behavior.
With his colleagues, he got around the difficulty with the help of wasp nest remnants, made up of dated mud, which were found under and above the paintings.
They determined that the kangaroo painting was 17,100 to 17,500 years old.
The dating of these oldest intact paintings “is of great importance to the Aboriginal people and Australians,” said Cissy Gore-Birch, head of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Association, in a statement from the University of Western Australia.
In total, Damien Finch’s team dated 27 ancient wasp nests distributed over sixteen paintings in eight rock shelters. With works of art in a naturalistic style (faithful representations of flora and fauna) dating from 13,000 to 17,000 years old.
They mainly represent animals, including a snake, genera of lizards and marsupials, including kangaroos, wallabies and koalas.
Animal representations dominate cave art, whether in France, Spain or Indonesia.
“This is a significant discovery, because through these estimates we can understand a little of the world in which these former artists lived”, adds Damien Finch in a press release.
“We will never know what the artists who painted these works 600 generations ago thought, but we do know that the Naturalist period extended until the end of the last ice age,” ended 10,000 ago years, he says.