How Old is Australia’s Rock Art?

Australian rock art shows some of the oldest-known artistic images by modern humans. However, there are considerable technical difficulties and uncertainties in dating rock art which make it difficult to determine the age of Australia’s earliest rock art.

Australian rock art, while extensive and in places of great age, is nevertheless not the oldest in the world. Both rock art and portable palaeoart were made long before Australia was apparently first settled. The oldest currently known rock art is in India, at such sites as Auditorium Cave and Daraki-Chattan, but similar Acheulian rock art is believed to exist in the Kalahari Desert of South Africa.
Arrival of humans in Australia
Archaeological evidence suggests that humans first arrived in Australia between 65,000 and 60,000 years ago. Northern Australia is the most likely place for people to have travelled from south east Asia across the land bridges then sailed across the ocean gaps to northern Australia. Archaeologists have now discovered early occupation sites at the three most probable entry areas – the Kimberley, Arnhem Land and Cape York Peninsula.

Nauwalabila rock shelter

In northern Australia there are numerous sandstone rock-shelters. Many of these have been used for camping and their floors are layered with charcoal and ash from camp fires, the remains of food such as shells and animal bones, stone tools and, very often, pieces of ochre. Ochre comes from soft varieties of iron oxide minerals (such as haematite – a fine-grained iron oxide which produces a strong red colour with a purple tint) and from rocks containing ferric oxide.

Nauwalabila rock shelter
Nauwalabila shelter in Kakadu National park, Arnhem Land

Stone tools and ochre are the toughest of this camping debris. Their appearance in the layers of material on the floor of the shelter is usually interpreted as the beginning of occupation at the shelter. Charcoal may or may not have survived in the lower layers of a site, depending on local preservation conditions, and other organic material tends to survive in only the youngest part of the deposit, spanning at the most a few thousand years.

How do we estimate the age of Australian rock art?
The best way to establish the age of rock art is to date the art directly (such as by dating a sample of the paint or pigment used) or indirectly (for example to obtain a minimum age for the art work by dating something that lies on top of the art – say a mud wasp’s nest or a natural chemical coating – or lies in a layer of material with objects or matter that can be dated). In the case of rock painting in Australia, dates have been obtained for pigment directly on the walls and for painted fragments buried in deposits of campsite material. For an interesting discussion of issues to do with dating Arnhem Land rock art, see the article by Chippindale and Tacon.

Techniques for dating have usually involved radio-carbon dating of material associated with the art, but there are also newer techniques now available including optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) and accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS). These are described in the page on Dating Rock Art by Robert Bednarik. Radiocarbon dating is limited to a maximum age of around 40 000 years, and the newer techniques are required for dating of older materials. AMS is a new radiocarbon dating method enabling the dating of much smaller samples of carbon than the traditional radiocarbon (C-14) method.

What are the Earliest Dates for Australian Rock Art?
Ochre is the main pigment used in rock art and is plentiful across most of Australia. Pieces of ochre, including some showing signs of wear through use, have been found in almost all of Australia’s ice-age sites. Most have been radiocarbon dated and the dates range from 10 000 to 40 000 years.

Does the use of ochre necessarily imply painting? As well as rock art, ochre has many other uses in modern Aboriginal ceremony, and is repeatedly found in association with burial not only in Australia but also in other parts of the world. In Arnhem Land, there is no certainty either that ochre was used for painting from the beginning; or that painting with ochre was on rock surfaces (rather than on perishable subjects); or that the first paintings on rock are amongst the ones that survive. However, the hardness of much of the ochre found in deposits strongly suggests that it was used on rock or other hard surfaces and the pattern of wear is totally consistent with use of the ochre in art.

The oldest dates so far found by direct dating of art were obtained by geologist Alan Watchman for layers of pigment in two rock-shelters on Cape York in north Queensland, one of 25 000 years and one of almost 30000 years.

There is, however, indirect evidence going back a lot further, leading some archaeologists to argue that the rock art galleries in northern Australia are some of the oldest in the world by modern humans. This is, of course, a contentious area, with recent claims for dates in southern France and northern Italy going back as far as 35 000 years.

Archaeologist Sue O’Connor at the Australian National University has found a buried fragment of rock painting preserved in the limestone rock-shelter of Carpenter’s Gap in the Kimberley (near Windjana Gorge National Park) in a layer dated to 40 000 years old. The red pigment seems to be the remains of paint on a rock art fragment fallen from the ceiling above.

The layer containing the painted fragment yielded ochre, burnt bone, stone artefacts and charcoal with an accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon date of 39,700 ± 1,000 BP (BP means Before the Present, which in this context is 1950, when the radiocarbon dating technique was developed). Another AMS date on charcoal from 20 centimetres below this gave statistically the same date. These dates give a minimum age for the fragment and for the occupation of the shelter. However convincing arguments that this fragment is evidence of pigment application have yet to be presented.

Probably Australia’s earliest known artistic system is the rock engravings in the Olary region of South Australia. These geometric engravings of circles, tracks, cupules and other designs are thickly coated with desert varnish. The style of these older engravings is remarkably uniform across Australia and other parts of the world. Initial claims that these carvings were been radiocarbon dated to around 40 000 years ago have not been supported subsequently.

There has also been a recent report (June 2001) on the dating of rock carvings in the East Pilbara of Western Australia. The carvings, located in the Woodstock region of the Pilbara, were dated using a new micro-erosion technique by rock art expert Robert Bednarik. The technique dated some of the carvings at more than 26 000 years old, and there is evidence to suggest that much of the rock engravings in the area are of similar age.

The Pilbara carvings are the same age as the cave engravings at Malangine in South Australia, and have the same distinctive style showing multiple circles with edges that come close but never intersect. Mr Bednarik believes they are part of an ancient continent-wide tradition of rock engraving. With more than one million individual petroglyphs, the Pilbara has what appears to be the largest concentration of Ice Age art in the world.

Earlier Suggestions of Artistic Activity
The earliest evidence of human occupation yet found in Australia is in two rock-shelters in Arnhem Land. In the lowest layer of material at these sites there are used pieces of ochre – evidence for paint used by artists 60,000 years ago! These shelters lie at the foot of the western Arnhem Land escarpment in the Kakadu region of the Northern Territory.

Malakunanja II is a shallow rock-shelter about 50 kilometres inland from the present coast, while the rock-shelter of Nauwalabila I (see picture above) is 70 kilometres further south. Both have faded paintings on their back walls, but these cannot be dated and are likely to be much younger than the oldest stone tools in the occupational deposits.

Map of old art sites

Pieces of ground haematite and red and yellow ochre were found, along with some stone tools, throughout the deposits, including the lowest layers, in both rock-shelters. The most common form of haematite found in these archaeological sites is fairly small pieces with flat facets on their sides. They are often triangular or elongated, resembling crayons or pieces of chalk, and were possibly used as such to make drawings on rock.

In contrast, some large lumps of haematite have been found, far too big and heavy to have been used as crayons, but frequently showing ground patches and fine scratched lines. Such lumps were possibly ground or scraped with another artefact to produce ‘powder paint’.

The problem with using haematite as an indicator of artistic activity is that it is not used uniquely for this purpose: it was also used by many prehistoric societies for body painting, for decoration of artefacts, for ceremonies, as a preservative, for medical purposes and as an insect repellent. Nevertheless, some archaeologists have pointed to its presence at the two Arnhem Land sites and its worn shape as evidence of artistic use.

The oldest find was a large piece of haematite weighing one kilogram, in the lowest layer of Nauwalabila. It showed clear signs of use and must have been brought from some considerable distance away to be used as a source of red pigment.

The upper layers of the human occupation deposits in both rock-shelters were dated by the radiocarbon method using organic material such as charcoal from ancient cooking fires. In the lower (older) layers accumulated before 20,000 years ago, all organic debris had disappeared. In these layers the quartz sands containing stone tools and other artefacts were dated by the luminescence method (OSL). Archaeologist Rhys Jones obtained dates for the earliest occupational layers of about 53,000 to 60,000 BP, more probably the latter.

There is thus evidence for artistic activity for the entire span of human occupation of Australia, with the oldest painted and engraved surfaces dated back perhaps as far as 40 000 BP, and signs of artists working with ochre paint possibly as far back as 60 000 years ago.

Note: the above article is based on information given in the book “Rock Art of the Dreamtime” by Josephine Flood, Angus and Roberston 1997; also from “Prehistory of Australia” by John Mulvaney and Johan Kamminga, Allen and Unwin 1999; and updated by research results published in late 2000.

Thanks are due to Robert Bednarik for correcting several errors in November 2004 – any remaining errors are of course the responsibility of Aboriginal Art Online.