New Research May Establish Australian Rock Art as the Oldest in the World

Australian Indigenous art is the longest unbroken tradition of art in the world. It is so old in fact, that examples have been found that depict long extinct megafauna. Now a push is underway to establish just how old it really is. It is expected that the research will reveal a date of at least 50,000 years, placing it among the oldest rock art in the world.

Indigenous Aboriginal history is believed to span a period of between 50,000 and 55,000 years with some estimates indicating an Aboriginal presence in Australia some 80,000 years before the arrival of the first Europeans. Prior to colonization, there were hundreds of indigenous Aboriginal groups with some 250 distinct languages spoken across the continent. Each group also had its own cultural and artistic traditions.

Rock Art of the Kimberley

One of the richest regions for rock art is the Kimberley region of north-western Australia, one of the earliest parts of Australia to be settled and an area where traditional Aboriginal law and culture is still active and alive. The Kimberley has tens of thousands of rock art sites spread across more than 400,000 square kilometres (an area about three times the size of England).

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that a group of scientists, researchers, and traditional owners is now studying the rock art of the Kimberley in order to establish as accurate a date as possible for the paintings.

Until now, researchers have faced difficulty obtaining an accurate date for the art due to the absence of organic matter in most paintings, which rules out radiocarbon dating. However, a new pioneering uranium series dating method is now being employed in which tiny flakes of mineral crusts are removed from above and below the paintings and the radioactive decay is measured. The testing is already showing promising results for establishing accurate ages for ancient art.

Bradshaw rock paintings found in the north-west Kimberley region of Western Australia. ( Public Domain )

A New Understanding of the History of Art

Cave art in Spain and France, which dates to around 40,000 years, is currently thought to be the oldest art in the world and the general belief is that cultural expression started in Europe and spread out from there. However, the results of this testing may radically change that perception, as it is thought that the rock art in Australia can be traced back to the entire history of people’s settlement on the continent.

“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,” geologist Andrew Gleadow told the Sydney Morning Herald. “If we can say that Australian art is the oldest continuous record anywhere on earth, that is extraordinary.”

Melbourne University scientists Helen Green, Jordy Grinpukel, traditional owners Mark Unghango, Ernie Boona and Damien Fink sampling a hard-to-reach mineral crust. Photo: Courtesy of Kimberley Foundation Australia.

Rock Art under Threat from the Australian Government

Unfortunately, despite the immense value of Australian traditional art from a scientific, historical, and cultural perspective, increasing amounts of ancient rock art is now under threat from the Australian Government, which has been deregistering sacred sites in order to make way for industrial development.

In one particular region, the Dampier Archipelago, which is located in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, there are more than 2,500 sites registered with the Department of Indigenous Affairs for their ceremonial or mythological significance to the Aboriginal people, most of which contain a rich array of ancient rock art thought to date back as early as 30,000 years. However, more than 20% of the rock art has already been destroyed by industrial development, and many sites have been deregistered as sacred in order to install a liquid natural gas plant and expand mining.

The enigmatic archaic faces, found in large numbers over the Burrup are among the earliest rock art works in the region. May be one of the oldest carved faces in the world (Credit: Ken Mulvaney)

“According to the  Philip Adams  radio show on the ABC, one worker on the site, an electrician for Woodside claimed the company had crushed 10,000 petroglyphs for roadfill,” reports “The oldest representation of a human face was also destroyed. The rock pools are filled with green scum, the eucalyptus of the area dying, the fluming of escaping natural gas, from faulty piping, rises as high as a six story building and burns the equivalent of the entire annual emissions in New Zealand, every day.”

Sadly, the government’s move to deregister the site as sacred follows other recent actions aimed at placing profit before the preservation of culture and recognition of indigenous rights.

Iron ore stockpile and loading facilities on East Intercourse Island in Dampier, Western Australia. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Featured image: Famous rock art of the Kimberley region in Australia, known as the ‘Wandjinas’. ( Public Domain )

By April Holloway


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