Rock art in Australia could be world’s oldest

A rock painting that appears to be of a bird that went extinct about 40,000 years ago has been discovered in northern Australia. If confirmed, this would be the oldest rock art anywhere in the world, pre-dating the famous Chauvet cave in southern France by some 7,000 years.

The red ochre painting was found in southwest Arnhem Land by a member of the Jawoyn Association, which represents the local traditional owners of the land. When Robert Gunn, an archaeologist brought in to document rock art in the area, saw the painting he immediately thought it looked like Genyornis, an emu-like, big-beaked, thick-legged bird that went extinct along with other Australian megafauna between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago.

“But I bit my tongue, and sent it off to a recognized authority, palaeontologist Peter Murray in Darwin, to see what he thought. When he confirmed that it probably was Genyornis, it was pretty exciting,” Robert says.

Robert thinks there are two possible interpretations: either this is among the oldest rock paintings in the world, or Genyornis went extinct later than anybody thinks.

But there’s no good archaeological or paleontological evidence that Genyornis survived longer than about 40,000 years ago, says Bruno David, an archaeologist and rock art specialist at Monash University in Melbourne, who has seen photos of the painting and who has worked in the region. “If this is Genyornis, then it has to be more than 40,000 years old,” he says.

Robert is now planning to record the site in much more detail, and next year Bruno and his team will excavate the area thoroughly. A rock fall created the exposed face on which the painting was made. By studying buried samples from beneath the fallen rock, the team should be able to work out the age of the rock face. If it is older than 40,000 years, this won’t prove that the painting is that old, but it will support the idea that it could be.

Some rock art specialists strongly suspect that the painting is younger. The oldest pigment found on a rock anywhere in Australia is 28,000 years old, but the image is so covered with dust and other rocky accretions, it’s impossible to know what it looked like.

The Genyornis site is a shallow shelter and most such paintings in Australia are thought to be less than about 5,000 years old; older ones are thought to have been eroded away by weather. The Chauvet artworks, in contrast, are deep inside a cave that was sealed for more than 20,000 years. However, some of the sandstone in Arnhem Land does have the advantage of being extremely hard and durable.

Bruno says it’s important to be cautious. The features of the painted bird match the features of the extinct Genyornis very closely, but this might be a coincidence, he says. “It’s possible that at some time in the past, people were painting animals that didn’t necessarily match living species – or that the bird wasn’t a physical bird, but an animal that was part of the local, ancestral Jawoyn Dreaming beliefs,” he says. And if this is the case, the painting could have been made at any time in the past.

But either way it’s exciting, he says. “If it’s Genyornis, then it’s of extreme significance. If not, it’s very significant because it tells us something about the way people understood their landscapes.”

From Australian Geographic