Australian Indigenous art is the longest unbroken tradition of art in the world. It is so old in fact, that examples have been found that depict long extinct megafauna. Now a push is underway to establish just how old it really is. It is expected that the research will reveal a date of at least 50,000 years, placing it among the oldest rock art in the world.
Indigenous Aboriginal history is believed to span a period of between 50,000 and 55,000 years with some estimates indicating an Aboriginal presence in Australia some 80,000 years before the arrival of the first Europeans. Prior to colonization, there were hundreds of indigenous Aboriginal groups with some 250 distinct languages spoken across the continent. Each group also had its own cultural and artistic traditions.
Rock Art of the Kimberley
One of the richest regions for rock art is the Kimberley region of north-western Australia, one of the earliest parts of Australia to be settled and an area where traditional Aboriginal law and culture is still active and alive. The Kimberley has tens of thousands of rock art sites spread across more than 400,000 square kilometres (an area about three times the size of England).
The Sydney Morning Herald reports that a group of scientists, researchers, and traditional owners is now studying the rock art of the Kimberley in order to establish as accurate a date as possible for the paintings.
Until now, researchers have faced difficulty obtaining an accurate date for the art due to the absence of organic matter in most paintings, which rules out radiocarbon dating. However, a new pioneering uranium series dating method is now being employed in which tiny flakes of mineral crusts are removed from above and below the paintings and the radioactive decay is measured. The testing is already showing promising results for establishing accurate ages for ancient art.
- The Mysterious Aboriginal Rock Art of the Wandjinas
- Oldest and largest concentration of ancient rock art under threat from Australian Government
- Aboriginal languages could reveal scientific clues to Australia’s unique past
Bradshaw rock paintings found in the north-west Kimberley region of Western Australia.
A New Understanding of the History of Art
Cave art in Spain and France, which dates to around 40,000 years, is currently thought to be the oldest art in the world and the general belief is that cultural expression started in Europe and spread out from there. However, the results of this testing may radically change that perception, as it is thought that the rock art in Australia can be traced back to the entire history of people’s settlement on the continent.
"Kimberley rock art should be held up as one of the greatest cultural achievements in the great saga of human development and migration across our planet," geologist Andrew Gleadow told the Sydney Morning Herald. "If we can say that Australian art is the oldest continuous record anywhere on earth, that is extraordinary."
Melbourne University scientists Helen Green, Jordy Grinpukel, traditional owners Mark Unghango, Ernie Boona and Damien Fink sampling a hard-to-reach mineral crust. Photo: Courtesy of Kimberley Foundation Australia.
Rock Art under Threat from the Australian Government
Unfortunately, despite the immense value of Australian traditional art from a scientific, historical, and cultural perspective, increasing amounts of ancient rock art is now under threat from the Australian Government, which has been deregistering sacred sites in order to make way for industrial development.
In one particular region, the Dampier Archipelago, which is located in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, there are more than 2,500 sites registered with the Department of Indigenous Affairs for their ceremonial or mythological significance to the Aboriginal people, most of which contain a rich array of ancient rock art thought to date back as early as 30,000 years. However, more than 20% of the rock art has already been destroyed by industrial development, and many sites have been deregistered as sacred in order to install a liquid natural gas plant and expand mining.
The enigmatic archaic faces, found in large numbers over the Burrup are among the earliest rock art works in the region. May be one of the oldest carved faces in the world (Credit: Ken Mulvaney)
“According to the Philip Adams radio show on the ABC, one worker on the site, an electrician for Woodside claimed the company had crushed 10,000 petroglyphs for roadfill,” reports Burrup.org.au. “The oldest representation of a human face was also destroyed. The rock pools are filled with green scum, the eucalyptus of the area dying, the fluming of escaping natural gas, from faulty piping, rises as high as a six story building and burns the equivalent of the entire annual emissions in New Zealand, every day.”
Sadly, the government’s move to deregister the site as sacred follows other recent actions aimed at placing profit before the preservation of culture and recognition of indigenous rights.
Iron ore stockpile and loading facilities on East Intercourse Island in Dampier, Western Australia. ( Wikimedia Commons )
Featured image: Famous rock art of the Kimberley region in Australia, known as the ‘Wandjinas’.
Is This 10,000-Year-Old Carving Europe’s Oldest Known Depiction of a Boat?
A rock carving discovered in Norway may be one of Europe’s earliest examples of art depicting a boat, reports Garry Shaw for the Art Newspaper.
The image, found in Valle, on the Efjorden fjord in Nordland County, appears to be a life-size representation of a boat made from sealskin, writes Jan Magne Gjerde, a scholar at the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research, in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology.
Based on the height of the surrounding shoreline, which was higher in the Stone Age than it is today, Gjerde dates the art to between 10,000 and 11,000 years ago. That makes it one of the oldest images of a boat in the world. Previously, the oldest known depictions of boats in northern Europe dated to between 7,000 and 7,500 years ago.
The image—a white outline carved into a rock surface—was probably originally about 14 feet long. A portion of the drawing eroded away over time, and it is now only clearly visible under particular weather conditions. A second carving at the site also appears to show a boat, but just a small part of it remains.
Retired geologist Ingvar Lindahl originally discovered the carving in 2017, as the Local Norway reported at the time.
“This is an extremely important development, a global sensation in fact, and will enter the history of research in a very, very big way,” Gjerde told state-run broadcaster NRK in 2017, per a translation by the Local. “… You can see the keel line and the railing line, and as you move forward you can see a really beautiful finish, forming the boat’s bows.”
The carving may depict a skin boat similar to the umiak vessels used by the Inuit. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
The location where Lindhal found the boat carving was already known for its life-size carvings of animals, including seals and reindeer, from the same time period. According to Gjerde, some large figures would have been visible to people on boats in the water from more than a quarter of a mile away and may have acted as signposts.
“Socializing the seascape by making highly visible rock art would be an important means of communication for the pioneer people in this area,” he writes.
Gjerde argues that the carving likely reflects the importance of skin boats to the first Stone Age people to settle the region. Sealskin boats were light enough to carry and could move quickly while carrying multiple people and items.
“Such a vehicle would be ideal for colonizing the seascapes in northern Norway during the Early Mesolithic,” the archaeologist adds.
The earliest known remains of a Scandinavian boat, the Hjortspring Boat, are wooden planks dated to between 350 and 300 B.C. Researchers have debated whether people prior to that period used skin boats or dugout canoes. According to Gjerde, the value of lightweight skin boats is evidenced by comparable—and much more recent—Inuit vessels.
“The umiak of the Inuit of southwest Alaska was so versatile that it was adopted by 19th-century whalers in preference to the New Bedford whaling boat,” he writes.
Given the particular light conditions necessary to see the boat carving, Gjerde suggests that there may be more undiscovered images in the area.
He concludes, “It is very likely that there are more figures at Valle and more sites with rock art in the Ofoten area in northern Norway.”
About Livia Gershon
Livia Gershon is a freelance journalist based in New Hampshire. She has written for JSTOR Daily, the Daily Beast, the Boston Globe, HuffPost, and Vice, among others.
How does this change things?
Australian Aborigines are believed to be the world's oldest continuous civilisation.
However, there has been debate among scientists about when they arrived, with an estimate of between 47,000 and 60,000 years ago. They would have made sea journeys from the islands of South-East Asia at a time when water levels were much lower.
The lead author of the new research, Associate Prof Chris Clarkson, from the University of Queensland, said: "We have managed to establish a new age for first occupation in Australia and pushed it back by about 18,000 years beyond what was the previous established age of about 47,000 years."
He added: "This has huge implications for everything from the out-of-Africa story to the extinction of megafauna and Aboriginal peoples' own knowledge of how long they have been in this country."
The out-of Africa theory postulates on when humans first left Africa. The dates there have also been hugely debated and have ranged from between 60,000 and 100,000 years. What this new research does is push up the bottom of that range to 65,000 years.
It also confirms that humans would have arrived before the extinction of Australian megafauna such as a type of giant wombat and a giant carnivorous goanna.
A graphic in the Sydney Morning Herald put the new timeframe in perspective, saying that if Aboriginal culture were taken to be 24 hours long, the First Fleet of European settlers in 1788 would have arrived at 23:54 and 56 seconds.
17,300-year-old Kimberley kangaroo recognised as Australia's oldest rock artwork
Scientists have confirmed that a painting of a kangaroo in a sandstone rock shelter in Western Australia’s remote Kimberley region is about 17,300 years old, making it the oldest known rock art in Australia.
The faded image, which is about two metres long, was dated using a radiocarbon technique that analysed wasp nests that were underneath and on top of the ochre-based paint.
Augustine Unghango, a Balanggarra man and traditional owner of the area, has climbed the escarpment above the Drysdale River and visited the painting many times.
“It really lifted my spirits up when I found out how old it was. It’s important that we do this,” he said.
The research, published on Tuesday in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, shows the ochre kangaroo was completed when the Earth was emerging from an ice age and the ocean was more than 100 metres lower than it is today.
The site of the painting is about 70km from the coast, but at the time it was painted the coastline to the north-west was more than 200km further away.
The study’s co-author Dr Sven Ouzman, from the University of Western Australia, said several Australian rock paintings were between 10,000 and 15,000 years old, but the finding near the Drysdale River was the oldest still in its original place.
“At that time you are coming to the end of the last ice age and in the Kimberley it seems to have been really dry and things were tough. But still, people are painting,” he said.
Evidence of older art has been found in Australia, but they were rock fragments or pieces of pigment.
Ouzman said the person or persons who painted the kangaroo “had to be linked into the trade network” at that time in order to source the materials.
Research published earlier this year found the world’s oldest cave painting was a 45,000-year-old life-sized depiction of a pig on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia.
The Sulawesi painting is similar in style to the kangaroo and Ouzman said there could be a cultural link between the two.
Unghango said kangaroos were culturally important and young people follow them into the desert as part of an initiation.
The research was led by Dr Damien Finch, a geochronologist at the University of Melbourne who developed the technique of using wasp nests to date the rock art.
For the research, Finch and colleagues looked at 16 paintings in eight rock shelters in the same area and analysed 27 mud wasp nests. Finch has been visiting the site of the kangaroo painting since 2015.
“You go underneath a slope and it’s there on the ceiling – it’s a bit tight,” he said.
“You can’t see it all at once. It reveals itself slowly because there are so many [wasp] nests. It takes a while to get your eye in and take in the pigment.”
The fossilised nests are mostly sand, but they also contain particles of charcoal that Finch said very likely came from burnt spinifex grass.
By dating the charcoal in the nests – some underneath the painting and some above – researchers could establish two dates between which the painting had to have been completed.
Finch said the intention was not to find the oldest painting, but to accumulate dates for a period of rock art known as naturalistic that is dominated by pictures of animals and occasionally plants.
Cas Bennetto, of the non-profit Rock Art Australia that helped fund the research, said the discovery was an “exciting story” but “there will be more”.
She thought further research could push the age of Kimberley’s rock art beyond 30,000 years.
“Our purpose is to understand the history of human habitation in Australia and we do that through rock art and its different contexts,” Bennetto said.
Further research will aim to fix the dates for the naturalistic rock art style, which came earlier than a style known as Gwion, which saw human figures become popular.
The Asian story
The Australasian region is playing a larger and larger role in rewriting the stories of human history.
New fossils like Homo floresiensis have completely changed our view of what the human story is in this region. These tiny humans – “the hobbits” – found on the Indonesian island of Flores, continue to challenge palaeoanthropologists – are they a dwarfed Homo erectus? Or are they the descendants of something much more ancient? What are the implications?
But perhaps more interesting (to me at least), are the multitude of artefactual finds which have come to light in recent years.
It now seems that one of the species of older humans, Homo erectus, may have had some capability for symbolism – something rarely associated with them. This hypothesis comes thanks to new analyses of material from old excavations.
Looking back at material excavated from the first known locality of Homo erectus fossils – Trinil on Java, originally discovered by Eugène Dubois in 1891 – scientists stumbled upon a shell exhibiting a zig-zag pattern. This shape had been carefully inscribed using a stone tool more than 400,000 years ago (and perhaps as much as 500,000!). Such geometric motifs had previously been found at southern African sites – but all with Modern Humans – and all significantly younger. In Eurasia too, such designs are present, but rarely seen in Neanderthal contexts.
Walking towards the Maros kast in Sulawesi — where the worlds oldest rock art is located. M. Langley , Author provided
Other findings in Island South East Asia – this time associated with modern humans, Homo sapiens – are showing that the realm of extravagant creativity wasn’t the sole domain of Africa and Europe. New explorations and excavations on Sulawesi and Timor-Leste have recovered not only the oldest rock art in the world, but a vast array of jewellery and other artistic items.
More than this propensity for art, it has also been found that the first modern human colonists in Asia were practising complex food-targeting strategies, like deep-sea fishing. Such a finding indicates an extensive knowledge of the sea, its dangers, and its rewards.
Pioneering technique dates tiny crusts of dirt
Professor Veth said the Kimberley region had one of the most diverse and abundant collections of Indigenous rock art in Australia.
"There are probably no reliable dates for the Kimberley, and yet here is one of the largest rock art galleries in the world, and probably the earliest concentration of figurative art anywhere in the world," he said.
"We're literally on the cusp now of dating it properly now, with all these different techniques, for the first time, so it's incredible exciting . it's a bit of a cyclonic event.
"I think there will be surprises, things we totally don't expect."
The team used several different dating techniques on each painting to come up with the most reliable set of dates possible.
Their focus was on analysing the tiny samples of material taken from both under and on top of the painting, to narrow down the period in which it was created.
It was a painstaking process for scientists like Helen Green, from the University of Melbourne.
The geologist pioneered a technique to date tiny crusts of dirt that form over an imagine in the hundreds, or thousands of years since it was created.
"We can see where a crust has formed over the squiggles of pigment, so we can use a small chisel to chip off a little piece," she said.
"It will let us know that the art underneath that is older than the age that we get for that crust."
She said she was now in lockdown at the university's laboratories processing hundreds of tiny samples.
"You're just really eager once you've collected all the samples to get in the lab and get the results, so yes it's a really exciting time for us," Ms Green said.
Hidden history: Aboriginal rock art in the Kimberley amongst the oldest in the world
A rock art sequence found in the Kimberley – arguably the longest and most complex in the world – could be much older than previously thought, and may predate ancient rock art in Western Europe.
A group of Australian researchers have been working with Aboriginal Traditional Owners in Kandiwal and Kalumburu, in the northwest Kimberley (WA), to analyse art in over 200 sites.
Rock art in the Kimberley was thought to be no older than about 10,000 years.
“We’re really happy to suggest we do have evidence that the art is of ice age – it is 16,000 [years old],” says Macquarie University geochronologist Dr Kira Westaway.
Their results were published last month in PLOS ONE.
Greg Goonack from Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation at the caverns. Photo by Dr June Ross.
“Dating rock art is very difficult,” says archaeologist Dr June Ross from the University of New England.
Uranium Series dating proved unsuccessful on the art, due to contamination. Carbon dating also failed, as the paintings didn’t contain any organic materials.
A rock art drawing of a banana skin. Photo from Macquarie University.
The team instead turned to “an amazing technique” using fossilised mud wasp nests – “mainly because it was pretty much the only material that was adhered to the rock surface that we could actually use,” Westaway says.
The researchers used a method called optically-stimulated luminescence (OSL) to date ancient wasp nests that had been built on top of the art.
“The mud wasps collect sand from a local riverbed, and they use it in their nests. And we can date sand using OSL,” says Westaway.
“What we’re actually dating, rather than the age of the sand, is when the sand was last exposed to sunlight,” she explains, “which would have been when the mud wasp picked the grains up on the riverbed.”
This gives a minimum estimate of how old the underlying art is.
“We don’t know how long it was between the time the painting was painted, and the time the wasps came along,” says Ross. “But a wasp very conveniently built this little time capsule on top of this painting, and they built that 16,000 years ago.”
Aboriginal Australian Culture: Rock Art
How exciting is it, when you visit an art gallery in a big city like Sydney, Melbourne or Auckland?! One of the most exciting things, is to see what artists were painting years ago. Well, imagine seeing art from 30,000 years ago! Aboriginal people in Australia were using red ochre to paint on walls of rock shelters and caves, literally thousands of centuries ago. These ‘rock art’ paintings and also engravings show the beings of ‘the Dreaming’ and they are sacred sites because they show just how long Aboriginal people have been living there.
One of the largest collections of rock art is in the heritage-listed Dampier Archipelago in Western Australia, where the rock engravings are thought to number in the millions.
There are three main styles of rock art:
– engraved geometric figures such as circles, arcs, animal tracks and dots.
– simple painted or engraved silhouettes of human and animal forms.
– complex paintings, showing internal organs of humans and animals
To show that Neanderthals were artists, researchers would need to find art in Europe made well before 50,000 years ago. Pike and Zilhão started brainstorming how to do this in 2003, when they serendipitously met Dirk Hoffmann, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology who specializes in dating minerals.
Hoffmann's work relies on the fact that the radioactive element uranium dissolves in water, but the element thorium doesn't. When water percolates through soils into a cave, the waterborne uranium gets trapped in mineral crusts and radioactively decays at a predictable pace into thorium. Since scientists can be confident that no other thorium entered the crusts, measuring the relative amounts of uranium and thorium in minerals can reveal their ages, and thus the ages of any paintings underlying the rock.