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. 

Older than previously thought

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.

Cutting-edge dating methods

“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. 

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.”

Going back in time

By analysing the age and style of rock art, the researchers have been able to paint a clearer picture of how Indigenous cultures developed.

“The style of the art changes through time,” says Ross. “People produce art for different reasons at different times and in different places.” 

“We found that the Wanjina period, which is the period that’s particularly relevant to Aboriginal people today, began earlier than we had expected,” Ross explains. Wanjina-style motifs dated to about 5000 years ago – over a thousand years earlier than previously thought.

“That’s really exciting, because that was the time when sea levels stabilised,” adds Ross. As sea levels rose, land in the Kimberley region was lost, forcing the population to find new ways of ordering themselves.

“We suggest that the new order is the order we see today, which has territory relating to particular groups, and then an interlinking system between those planned territories. It’s very exciting to see the origins of this emerging through the study of rock art.” 

Sharing the significance outside of Dreamtime

The study was also an opportunity to work closely with the Traditional Owners of the land, and help them share the significance of their art.

“They’re not really bothered by how old the art is. For them, everything is in the Dreamtime, so it’s a part of their culture and ancestry, and the art is very very important to them, but the actual age doesn’t concern them so much,” says Westaway.

“But these Traditional Owners realised that to establish the significance of the art to the Western world, they need to establish how old it is,” she adds. 

Working hand in hand

Twenty members of the local Aboriginal community participated in the study.

“One of the main things for this project is that we wanted it to be hand in hand with the Traditional Owners,” Westaway says.

“They were there when we did the sampling, to make sure that they were happy, that the art wasn’t being damaged,” she says. “We were very careful to make sure that their wishes and their opinions were heard, so that we worked together as a team – which was really important to us.” 

“Our rock art brings visitors from all around Australia, and around the world,” says Cathy Goonack, Chair of the Winun Ngari Aboriginal Corporation.

“They want to look at our art and hear our stories; now we’ve got a good science story that we can tell people as well. We’ll also use this information to help us look after our art.” 

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