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The First Australians Were Among the World’s First Artists

Researchers have dated what may be the longest, most impressive rock art sequence found anywhere in the world, in the north-west Kimberley region of Western Australia, and believe it could potentially challenge Western Europe as the site of the world’s earliest rock art.

Dr June Ross of The University of New England says the discovery, along with the emergence of rock art in Sulawesi around 39,000 years ago, shows that humans with sophisticated artistic skills settled along the northern coastline as early as 36,000 years ago.

Ross worked alongside researchers from Macquarie University and the University of Wollongong, as well as Aboriginal traditional owners based in Kandiwal and Kalumburu. Focused on the rugged Lawley and Mitchell river basins, team members recorded more than 200 sites over a 3-year period. The research has been published in PLOS One (http://tinyurl.com/zvhnc24).

The researchers trialled three different dating techniques on a range of rock art styles with kangaroo and yam-style motifs. The most successful technique proved to be optically stimulated luminescence (OSL), which was applied to the sand grains within mud wasp nests that adhered to many of the art motifs and became fossilised over time.

As OSL measures the period of time since the grain of sand was last exposed to sunlight, the resulting age records the time when the nest was built on top of the painting, thus providing a minimum estimate for the time that the artist could have painted the image. This method provided nine minimum age estimates for when mud wasp nests became established over the art.

Accelerator Mass Spectrometry radiocarbon dating, applied to the carbon within the wasp nests and to beeswax spots found adhering to the art, provided an additional four results.

The OSL results confirmed that the origin of the Kimberley rock art assemblage was being painted just after the height of the last glaciation. “The oldest age we established during the project was not for a classic example of Gwion-style rock art as we had hoped,” Ross said.

“But our results demonstrate that at least some phases of Kimberley art are of great antiquity – and may date to a time when sea levels were lower, the continent was much larger and environmental conditions were more challenging. “Perhaps the oldest art is now submerged off the Kimberley coastline.”