Ages for Australia’s oldest rock paintings

Abstract

Naturalistic depictions of animals are a common subject for the world’s oldest dated rock art, including wild bovids in Indonesia and lions in France’s Chauvet Cave. The oldest known Australian Aboriginal figurative rock paintings also commonly depict naturalistic animals but, until now, quantitative dating was lacking. Here, we present 27 radiocarbon dates on mud wasp nests that constrain the ages of 16 motifs from this earliest known phase of rock painting in the Australian Kimberley region. These initial results suggest that paintings in this style proliferated between 17,000 and 13,000 years ago. Notably, one painting of a kangaroo is securely dated to between 17,500 and 17,100 years on the basis of the ages of three overlying and three underlying wasp nests. This is the oldest radiometrically dated in situ rock painting so far reported in Australia.

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Fig. 1: Map of the Kimberley region in Western Australia.
Fig. 2: Minimum ages for 10 motifs from 15 overlying wasp nest ages.
Fig. 3: Maximum ages for five motifs from six underlying wasp nest ages.
Fig. 4: Macropod motif DR015_10 dated to around 17,300 years.
Fig. 5: Calibrated ages for the six nests used to constrain an age range for motif DR015_10.
Fig. 6: Age constraints for IIAP motifs.

Data availability

All data are available in the manuscript or the Extended Data figures and in two previous publications18,30. At the request of Balanggarra Aboriginal Traditional Owners of the land where the samples were collected, the data do not include exact locations of rock art sites.

Code availability

The custom code used is provided in the Methods.

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Acknowledgements

We acknowledge and thank the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, Rangers and Traditional Owners for permission to work on their Country and for their support during fieldwork. In particular, we thank A. Unghango and family, the Waina family and A. Chalarimeri. Fieldwork support was provided by S. Bradley, P. Hartley, N. Sundblom, R. Maher, T. Tan, M. Maier and P. Kendrick. The sites we visited were relocated and recorded over decades by Dunkeld Pastoral Co Pty Ltd and the Kimberley Visions Survey teams, J. Schmiechen and the late G. Walsh. Radiocarbon measurements and laboratory support from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) was provided by A. Williams, F. Bertuch and B. Yang. Financial support for the Centre for Accelerator Science at ANSTO was provided by the Australian National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy. D.F. thanks AINSE Ltd for providing financial assistance through a Post Graduate Research Award to enable work on the radiocarbon analyses. This research was funded by an Australian Research Council Linkage Projects LP130100501 and LP170100155, with funding partners the Kimberley Foundation Australia (now Rock Art Australia), with in-kind support from Dunkeld Pastoral Co Pty Ltd, and Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation especially for fieldwork. D.F. is supported by an Australian Postgraduate Award. The Kimberley Foundation Australia also provided a grant to D.F. to establish the radiocarbon pretreatment facility at the University of Melbourne. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript beyond that indicated above.

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Authors

Contributions

This research is part of the multi-disciplinary Kimberley Rock Art Dating project conceived and led by A.G. who, with J.H., supervised this work as part of D.F.’s PhD research project. Motif classification was performed by P.H. and C.M.; D.F. collected and pretreated the samples, designed and performed the experiments, and analysed and interpreted the results. Fieldwork was carried out by D.F., P.H., S.H., S.O., P.V., C.M., A.G. and H.G. Illustrations were drawn by P.H. Photographs were taken by D.F and P.H., except for Fig. 2a, which was taken by P.V. Radiocarbon measurements and initial data reduction were performed by V.A.L.; D.F. wrote the manuscript draft, with key editing from J.H. and A.G. and with further input from all of the authors.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Damien Finch.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information: Nature Human Behaviour thanks Maxime Aubert and Paul Tacon for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Peer reviewer reports are available. Primary Handling Editor: Charlotte Payne.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Radiocarbon age measurements on wasp nests associated with IIAP motifs.

The Sample Code is constructed from a short site identifier, a number to identify the motif and the number of the sample collected, in the format ‘SITE_MOTIF-NEST’. For a complete description of the Pretreatment Sequence, Fractions, and Reliability Score (RS) refer Finch et al.30. The δ13C of DR013_09-1 was measured to be −22.5‰ but all other samples contained too little carbon for this ratio to be measured directly. The typical charcoal value for δ13C (−25 ‰) was assumed for all other samples. Calibrated using SHCal1343 in OxCal v4.3.232.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Stylistic classification of motifs associated with wasp nest samples.

‘Over/ Under Pigment’ indicates the nest sample was respectively, either over or under the motif. The confidence level in the expert identification of motifs as of the IIAP style is listed in the two columns on the right side. DR015_10 was classed as a ‘Certain’ IIAP motif by both PH and CM.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Dated IIAP motifs DR006_05 to DR015_11 (excluding DR015_10).

Calibrated radiocarbon dates (years cal BP) and images for wasp nests providing a minimum or maximum age constraint for motifs as listed.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Dated IIAP motifs DR015_14 to DT1207_12.

Calibrated radiocarbon dates (years cal BP) and images for wasp nests providing a minimum or maximum age constraint for motifs as listed.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Context for boomerang stencil motif DR013-09.

(a) shows the original photograph. (b) and (c) are D Stretch (http://www.dstretch.com) enhanced, false colour versions of the same photograph to highlight the superimposed paintings over the boomerang stencil. (d) illustrates the assumed position of the boomerang stencil with enhancements applied in (e) and (f).

Extended Data Fig. 6 Macropod motif DR015_10 sample locations.

Wasp nest locations and sample images, prior to sampling, for the oldest over-art sample and the two youngest under-art samples.

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Finch, D., Gleadow, A., Hergt, J. et al. Ages for Australia’s oldest rock paintings. Nat Hum Behav (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-01041-0

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