The team dated 27 mud wasp nests around 16 different paintings from eight rock shelters

A kangaroo painting created over 17,000 years ago by Aboriginal artists has been identified – with the help of a few ancient wasps – as Australia’s oldest intact rock art.

The two-meter-long (six-foot) piece of art on the sloping ceiling of a rock shelter in the Kimberley region of Western Australia was painted in an early naturalistic style, which often features life-size renderings animals, according to research published Monday.

Scientists worked with the local indigenous community, who can trace their heritage to the region for tens of thousands of years, to establish the age of the original rock art works, many of which have been worked and reworked over the years. millennia.

“The main challenge, on a global scale, in dating ancient paintings is that they very rarely use a pigment that can be dated with any of the current quantitative dating techniques,” said lead author Damien Finch. , geochronologist at the University of Melbourne. AFP.

To work around this problem, the researchers identified a way to determine the age of the paint using old mud wasp nests.

Finch and his colleagues discovered that some of the cave paintings contained the remains of these nests – which can be radiocarbon dated – above and below the images.

They estimated the kangaroo painting to be between 17,500 and 17,100 years old, the oldest find to date. “It is important that Indigenous knowledge and stories are not lost and continue to be shared for generations to come,” Cissy Gore-Birch, director of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, said in a statement from the University of Ottawa. ‘Western Australia.

600 generations ago

She said partnerships could forge a link between traditional knowledge and Western science, adding that the dating of the oldest known rock shelter painting “is of great significance to Aborigines and Australians and is an important part. of Australian history “.

In total, the team dated 27 mud wasp nests around 16 different paintings from eight rock shelters, and found that works of art in this same naturalistic style were produced around 17,000 to 13,000 ago. years.

The images were primarily depictions of animals, including a snake, a lizard-like figure, and three macropods – marsupials including kangaroos, wallabies, and quokkas.

“This is an important finding because with these early estimates we can understand something of the world these ancient artists lived in,” Finch said in a statement, adding that the environment would have been cooler and drier than today.

“We can never know what was on the artist’s mind when he / she painted this work over 600 generations ago, but we do know that the naturalistic period dates back to the last ice age.”

The research, which is part of Australia’s largest rock art encounter project, was published in the journal Nature of human behavior.

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