Naturalistic paintings of animals are a common theme in early rock art across the world, from the Sulawesi pig recently identified in Indonesia (CWA 106), to the famous Chauvet Cave in France, but dating this art often poses a challenge, as the pigments themselves rarely contain enough material for accurate analysis. Now, researchers in Australia have used wasp nests on a cave wall to identify the earliest known example of in situ rock art in the country: a painting of a kangaroo created over 17,000 years ago.
The painting was first noticed by researchers on the sloping ceiling of a rock shelter in the Kimberley region of Western Australia in the 1990s, and was believed to be stylistically consistent with the ‘Irregular Infill Animal Period’ (IIAP), the earliest known phase of painted rock art in the area. New research published in Nature Human Behaviour (https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-01041-0) supports this stylistic determination and offers a more precise age for the kangaroo painting.
The method used in this recent project relies on the presence of fossilised mud wasp nests, which contain material suitable for radiocarbon dating. The kangaroo painting had three nests above it and three below. Analysis of these six nests made it possible to ascertain a minimum and maximum age for the painting, revealing that it was created between 17,500 and 17,100 years ago, most likely around 17,300 years ago.
In addition to identifying the earliest radiometrically dated rock art in situ in Australia, the study also revealed the ages of several other examples of early rock art in the area and provided an extended date range for the IIAP style in the Kimberley region, from at least 17,000 to 13,000 years ago.