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Australia: Oldest, dated rock painting shows a kangaroo

Aboriginal art is one of the most important of mankind. The characteristic images, often made of dots and lines, were preserved in rock paintings that are thousands of years old on the southern continent. The exact dating of the images poses challenges for researchers.

This can only be achieved through stylistic features if there are comparable finds. The most reliable results are obtained using physico-chemical processes such as radiocarbon dating. However, these can only be used if corresponding organic traces have been retained in the paint. To do this, the work of art usually has to be damaged in order to get samples.

In Australia, researchers have now used an unusual method to date a two-meter picture of a kangaroo. To determine the age, the scientists working with Damien Finch from the University of Melbourne used wasp nests that stick to the rock on and under the painting and have also been preserved for thousands of years. The researchers present their study in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

They were able to date the organic material of the mud wasp nests using the radiocarbon method. In total, they examined 75 nests in the vicinity of 16 rock art in Western Australia, in the Kimberley region.

The rock art there shows numerous animal motifs, including many pictures that were painted in the oldest known style: This is characterized, among other things, by the fact that the bodies of the animals shown are almost completely filled with individual lines, head, tail or limbs. According to the study, the rock paintings examined were between around 13,000 and 17,000 years old.

The kangaroo painting could be dated most precisely because it partially covered three wasp nests and in turn three nests were built on it. The researchers determined an age between 17,100 and 17,500 years, most likely 17,300 years. It is the oldest rock art radiometrically dated in Australia, the researchers write. Other images are believed to be even older and could date back to when the Aborigines colonized the continent 40,000 to 60,000 years ago. However, that can only be estimated at most.

“This is a significant find because through these initial estimates we can understand something of the world these ancient artists lived in,” Finch said. “We will never know what the artist was thinking when he or she painted this work more than 600 generations ago. But we know that the naturalistic period goes back to the last Ice Age, so the environment was cooler and drier than it is today. “

Sven Ouzman from the University of Western Australia adds: “The iconic kangaroo image visually resembles rock paintings from islands in Southeast Asia that were created more than 40,000 years ago, which suggests a cultural connection – and indicates an even older rock art in Australia” .

Basically, the exact age of the works of art allows the depicted motifs to be associated with the environment, such as climate changes. Between 14,000 and 13,000 years ago, the climate in the region improved, say the researchers. Some time later the painting style changed – instead of animals, people were increasingly depicted. This may indicate social and cultural changes that may have been accompanied by climatic changes, such as population growth.

However, the Aboriginal cultural sites are threatened. On the one hand, the ravages of time are gnawing at the pictures. Weathering, the consequences of fires or algae growth are a problem for them. In addition, there is destruction as a result of economic interests.

An Aboriginal holy site, a cave shelter, was damaged by a mining company in Western Australia for the second time in a year. The incident occurred, according to reports in the Sydney Morning Herald, in the Pilbara region, where the Australian-British raw materials company BHP is running a billion-dollar iron ore mining project. According to the Banjima people, there was rockfall and damage there. What exactly triggered the damage is still unclear.

Scandal over blown caves

In June, BHP issued a statement that it would not disrupt any holy site without extensive consultation with the Banjima. The company has great respect for the indigenous people and their heritage, it said.

Last year, the demolition of two holy sites of the Australian aborigines by the mining company Rio Tinto caused worldwide criticism. The company boss and two other top managers resigned later. In the Juukan Gorge, also in the Pilbara region, the group had blown up caves in which an archaeologist had found important artifacts in 2014. The age of the two sites was estimated at a maximum of 48,000 years.

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