And it is… a kangaroo.

In a cave in the north-eastern Kimberley region of Western Australia, researchers have come across an unusual rock art. It is a drawing in which the iconic kangaroo can be recognized. It’s a special find. Because the two-meter-long painting appears to be the oldest, still intact rock carving in Australia.

To estimate the age of the drawing, the researchers used radiocarbon dating of surrounding mud wasp nests. According to the team, it is very rare to find these mud wasp nests both above and below a single drawing. However, they came in handy. Because this enabled the researchers to determine the minimum and maximum age for the artwork. “We applied radiocarbon dating to three wasp nests below the painting and three nests above it,” says researcher Damien Finch. “We can now confidently state that the drawing is between 17,500 and 17,100 years old. The drawing was most likely made around 17,300 years ago. ”

The 17,000 year old petroglyph of a kangaroo. Image: Pauline Heaney

And that is a considerable age. In fact, “this makes the drawing the oldest known petroglyph in Australia,” Finch said. “It is an important find. Because through these initial estimates, we further expand our understanding of the world in which these ancient artists lived. ”

Naturalistic period
The kangaroo is painted on the sloping ceiling in a cave in the territory of the indigenous Unghango clan. However, over many millennia, many petroglyphs in the cave have been repainted by younger artists. Previous researchers have looked at the stylistic features of all of these drawings and the order in which they were painted when they overlapped. And from that came an interesting conclusion. For example, the so-called ‘naturalistic period’ appears to be the oldest, in which life-size animals were often drawn. The discovered kangaroo is a typical example of petroglyphs in this old style.

Cultural History
According to researcher Sven Ouzman, the rock painting also gives us a better understanding of indigenous cultural history. “This iconic depiction of a kangaroo is visually very similar to the petroglyphs created on islands in Southeast Asia, created some 40,000 years ago,” said Ouzman. “This suggests a possible cultural connection.”

The researchers underline the importance of integrating traditional knowledge with Western science in order to preserve Australia’s history and cultural identity. “It is important that indigenous knowledge and stories are not lost and shared for generations to come,” says researcher Cissy Gore-Birch. “The dating of the oldest petroglyph in an Australian cave means a lot to Aborigines and Australians and is an important part of Australia’s history.”

The findings add important new insights to our understanding of Australian – as well as global – ancient rock art. The next step is to put the Aboriginal petroglyphs in the Kimberley region in chronological order. To achieve this, the researchers again want to examine wasp nests around petroglyphs. In this way, they hope to be able to determine precisely when each art period began and ended.

Did you know…

… Not so long ago, researchers may have stumbled upon possibly the oldest rock carving ever? The drawing in question – of a warthog – could be more than 45,500 years old. Read on here!