Bird rock art could be world's oldest
By: Emma Young | June-3-2010
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
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 recognised authority,
palaeontologist Peter Murray in Darwin, to see what he thought. When
he confirmed that it probably was Genyornis, it was pretty exciting,"
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.
Age old question
But there's no good archaeological or palaeontological 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."