Lonely Planet Writer

Kimberley rock art may be oldest in the world

Australian history could be reshaped after Aboriginal rock from the west of the country may date back 50,000 years.

The results of initial analysis under new research methods suggests that Australian rock art may go back 50,000 years
The results of initial analysis under new research methods suggests that Australian rock art may date back 50,000 years Image by Mel Patterson / CC BY 2.0

Pioneering research by scientists at the University of Melbourne has yielded initial results which could dramatically change the perception of global artistic development.  The researchers have come up with a ground-breaking way for dating methods on cave and rock paintings found in the remote Kimberley region, which possesses one of the biggest bodies of rock art in existence.

The work, which was co-funded by the Kimberley Foundation Australia and the Australian Research Council, undertook research in areas where there were tens of thousands of rock art sites. The Sydney Morning Herald reports, that in tandem with traditional owners on whose land the art work is located, the dating project considered the extensive gallery of ochre, rusted orange, deep brown and white-hued drawings of humans, shells, fish and marsupials.

A research group has found that
A research group has findings which could dramatically alter the present perception of global artistic development  Image by Dave Pape / CC BY 2.0

Geologist Andrew Gleadow said the study boiled down to the scientific question of “how old is it?” His team at the University of Melbourne and those from the Australian Nuclear and Science Technology Organisation led an revised method for uranium-series dating of rock art with a view to ascertaining if it is relatively new or went back 50,000 years – a timespan which covered the history of people settlements in Australia.

The group, working alongside archaeologists led by Sven Ouzman from the University of Western Australia, focused on analysis of radioactive decay within tiny flakes of mineral crusts from around the paintings. This helped them to painstakingly age the brackets pertaining to hundreds of samples in the vast area. Up to now, trying to accurately date this art form was considered virtually impossible as radiocarbon dating was dismissed because of a lack of organic matter in most paintings.

Currently, the oldest Kimberley rock art is dated at 17,500 years old while similar cave art in France and Spain is thought to be the oldest in the world at about 40,000 years old. Professor Gleadow described the results emerging from their study as “terribly exciting” due to the concerted effort and technical firepower that had been applied in dating Australian rock art. He accepted that a lot more work was required on the findings, but the initial indications were “very encouraging,” he declared. He told the Herald that if they could prove that Australian art was the oldest, it would be “extraordinary.”