In Western Australia a team of scientists working in collaboration with Aboriginal traditional owners has successfully dated a 17,000-year-old kangaroo rock painting in the Kimberley region.

The rock painting was found in Balanggarra Country in the north-eastern Kimberley and is now officially the oldest known painting still on the wall of a rock shelter in Australia.

The work is part of a major, ongoing project aiming to develop a time scale for Aboriginal rock art in the Kimberley.

The 17,000-year-old kangaroo rock painting – along with 15 others – was dated using radiocarbon dating on mud wasp nests over and under the artworks – a new technique pioneered by The University of Melbourne geochronologist Dr Damien Finch.

The coastline as it is today, at 12,000 years ago and 17,300 years ago. Image credit: Damien Finch and Pauline Heaney

University of Western Australia archaeologist Dr Sven Ouzman says when the painting was made the last ice age was just coming to a close.

“The sea would have been 200-300 kilometres further away. What’s inspiring about that is it shows times were fairly tough but on the other hand…even in an Ice Age they [Indigenous people] were making art.”

“This is a big painting, it’s two metres, you need a lot of pigment, you’ve got to travel to get the ochre, you’ve got to trade with people … this is not just surviving: this is thriving.”

Cissy Gore-Birch, Chair of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, said partnerships were important to integrate traditional knowledge with science, to preserve Australia’s history and cultural identity.

“It’s important that Indigenous knowledge and stories are not lost and continue to be shared for generations to come,” Ms Gore-Birch said.

“The dating of this oldest known painting in an Australian rock shelter holds a great deal of significance for Aboriginal people and Australians, and is an important part of Australia’s history.”