Kimberley (Australie): rock art may be among the oldest in the world

The biggest-ever push to accurately date Australian rock art is under way in the Kimberley

Daisy Dumas

Source -

A group of scientists, researchers and traditional owners is on the cusp of reshaping Australian history, with experts hoping that Aboriginal rock art in Western Australia may prove to be up to 50,000 years old, putting it among the oldest cultural expressions in the world.

Initial results of pioneering Australian research have the potential to drastically alter the perceived flow of global artistic development after University of Melbourne scientists achieved a world first in dating methods on cave and rock paintings in the remote Kimberley region, which has one of the largest surviving bodies of rock art on the planet.

1455915581427Researchers Nick Sundblom, Helen Green and Jordy Grinpukel remove tiny mineral accretions from a rock art panel motif in the Kimberley. Courtesy of Kimberley Foundation Australia. Photo: Sven Ouzman

Co-funded by the Australian Research Council and the Kimberley Foundation Australia, which initiates research centred on some of area's tens of thousands of rock art sites, the rock art dating project has worked in step with traditional owners, on whose land the extensive galleries of ochre, deep brown, rusted orange and white-hued pictures of human figures, marsupials, shells and fish are found.

"The scientific question, of course, is how old is it?" said geologist Andrew Gleadow, whose team at the University of Melbourne and from the Australian Nuclear and Science Technology Organisation spearheaded a new method for uranium-series dating of rock art.

1455915581427 1The Kimberley has tens of thousands of rock art sites, including those at Munurru near the Gibb River Road. Groundbreaking dating research is focused on more remote galleries.  Photo: James Brickwood

"Does this rock art go back just a relatively short while, or does it go back 50,000 years, the entire history of people's settlement in Australia?"

Working with archaeologists from the University of Western Australia led by Sven Ouzman, the multidisciplinary team has analysed radioactive decay within tiny flakes of mineral crusts from above and below paintings, gradually narrowing age brackets around hundreds of samples in the vast area.

Until now, accurately dating the ​art form was regarded as almost impossible, with a lack of organic matter in most paintings ruling out radiocarbon dating.

The oldest rock art in the Kimberley is currently dated at 17,500 years old, a finding that is long-disputed. Cave art in Spain and France is currently thought to be the oldest in existence, at around 40,000 years old.  

1455915581427 2The pioneering uranium series dating technique is showing promising results for pegging an age to the ancient art. Photo: Courtesy of Kimberley Foundation Australia.

Professor Gleadow said that never has such a concerted effort and sheer technical firepower been focused on the problem of dating Australian rock art and results emerging over the past few weeks are "incredibly exciting".

"The results need a lot of work on them yet but the first indications are very encouraging," he said.

1455915581427 3The Kimberley has tens of thousands of rock art sites, including those at Munurru near the Gibb River Road. Groundbreaking dating research is focused on more remote galleries.  Photo: James Brickwood

Findings are expected to be published in scientific journals within the next few months.

"If we can say that Australian art is the oldest continuous record anywhere on earth, that is extraordinary," Mr Gleadow told theHerald

"We've had a traditional perspective that things all started in Europe and migrated from there. They didn't necessarily.

"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."

Chairwoman of the Kimberley Foundation, Maria Myers, has driven the project from its first ambitious hypothesis suggesting that Kimberley paintings may as be old as human settlement of the continent.

"It's what we set out to do. What this is eventually going to tell is the first part of Australia's story," said Ms Myers, who was in January made a Companion of the Order of Australia for her work championing Indigenous rock art.

She said the results were key to understanding how humans dealt with massive environmental changes, including sea level rise.

"It's a big part of the jigsaw puzzle of the movement of humans around the globe in early times," she said.

Regardless how old the art proves to be, the methods developed will have wide applicability. And putting a solid date on our relatively unsung treasures will guide conservation plans into the future, protecting the heritage of both traditional owners and the nation.

Perhaps most exciting, said both experts, is how little is known about rock art both in and out of Australia.  

"Our archaeologists were going to the Middle East and anywhere in the world but Australia, but suddenly we realise it's on our doorstep," said Ms Myers, who first visited the Kimberley in 1995 and now owns two properties in the region.

"The hypothesis of the Australian settlement story – that we find paintings as old as human settlement of the continent – might be correct."