ARCHAEOLOGISTS at a remote site in southwest Arnhem Land have made a discovery establishing early Australian Aborigines as among the most advanced people in human evolution.
A team led by Bruno David from Monash University has found and firmly dated a fragment of charcoal rock art to 28,000 years ago.
This makes it the oldest painting so far proven by carbon-dating in Australia and among some of the earliest evidence of human painting.
The discovery was made last June but has been dated only recently by experts from New Zealand’s University of Waikato radiocarbon laboratory.
The piece was discovered by Bryce Barker from the University of Southern Queensland. “The discovery shows Australian Aboriginal people were responsible for some of the earliest examples of rock art on the planet,” Professor Barker said.
France’s Chauvet caves were carbon dated to 35,000 years ago. They were known as the world’s oldest confirmed rock art sites until last week, when drawings in Spain’s El Castillo caves were dated to 40,800 years.
The Bradshaw figurative paintings found throughout the Kimberley are well known internationally, Professor Barker said. “The Bradshaws are often talked about as being the oldest rock art in Australia but the oldest firm date for them is 16,000-17,000 years taken from a wasp nest covering the art.”
Professor Barker said he was confident the Arnhem Land rock art would come to be seen as significant as the French and Spanish sites.
“Now we’ve got this and we are sure we’ll push the age back (of Australian rock art) in the future.”
“It puts Aboriginal people up there as among the most advanced people in human evolution,” he said. “Some of the earliest achievements by modern humans were happening in this country.”
Some scientists have said that Australian rock art went back 45,000 years but Professor Barker said that date is unproven. He said this new discovery has been “unequivocally dated”.
“Some rock art has previously been dated older than 28,000 but there are problems with it (those examples),” he said.
Professor Barker and his colleagues have outlined their reasons for asserting the superiority of this new discovery in the next edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science.
The charcoal rock art fragment was excavated by Professor Barker from the Nawarla Gabarnmang rock art site at the headwaters of the Katherine River in the Northern Territory last June. The piece of granite was 60cm underground. It wasn’t until October, when Professor Barker re-examined it in the laboratory, that he realised its significance.
“Rock art is very difficult to date because it’s not organic, it’s painted with minerals,” he said.
The use of charcoal meant scientists could establish the date of its execution by carbon dating.
The Nawarla Gabarnmang site is only accessible by helicopter but it is providing a rich picture of the region’s history. In October 2010 the oldest ground-edge tool was discovered there, prompting scientists to reconsider when the technique of grinding to make tools sharp began.