Archaeologists have discovered a 17,300-year-old painting of a kangaroo at a rock shelter in Western Australia, making it the oldest known painted figure ever to be found on the continent.
Measuring 6.5 feet (2 meters) across, the kangaroo painting—made from red ochre—is located on the wall of a rock shelter in Western Australia’s Kimberley region. As the new research paper, published in Nature Human Behavior on Monday, points out, the painting is “the oldest radiometrically dated...rock painting so far reported in Australia.”
In total, the archaeologists detected and dated 16 different motifs found at eight different sandstone shelters in the Kimberley region, including depictions of a snake, a lizard-like creature, a reclining human, and various macropods (a group of marsupials that includes kangaroos, wallabies, and pademelons). The team, led by geochronologist Damien Finch from the University of Melbourne, worked closely with, and had the approval of, local Indigenous Traditional Owners during the course of these investigations.
For archaeologists, it’s notoriously difficult to date cave paintings, as radiocarbon dating requires organic compounds, which aren’t always present in rock paintings. To find the age of rock art, scientists typically look for things that can be dated, such as mineral deposits that overlay cave paintings. In this case, Finch and his colleagues were fortunate to find evidence of mud wasp nests both in front of and behind some of the paintings found at the sandstone shelters.
The radiocarbon dating of these wasp nests at the locations of the 16 motifs yielded a date range between 17,000 to 13,000 years ago, which means this style of painting was around for at least 4,000 years. For the kangaroo painting, the team managed to sample three wasp nests behind the painting, and three wasp nests in front, providing a “well-constrained” date range between 17,500 and 17,100 years ago, with the most likely age being 17,300 years old, according to the paper.
“Many more dates from this period are required before the full chronological extent of the paintings still visible today can be determined,” wrote the authors.
This artwork is old, but it’s far from the oldest on Earth. Earlier this year, scientists discovered a 43,900-year-old depiction of a warty pig on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia, making it (possibly) the oldest known figurative art piece in the archaeological record. Neanderthal art dating back some 64,000 years could be even older.