Kimberley rock art could be among oldest in the world.

Scientists and Aboriginal elders are hoping the most comprehensive study of rock art done in the Kimberley region may confirm the images to be among the oldest made by humans anywhere in the world.

The Kimberley Foundation Australia and the Australian Research Council are supporting two major projects called Rock Art Dating and Kimberley Visions. Click on the project links below to find out more on KFA-initiated projects.

  • Current Project Dating Aboriginal Rock Art
    'Hot Rock' person. Prof. Janet Hergt Deputy Dean Science, University of Melbourne
    New Kimberley Rock Art Dating Project

    A new dating project “An absolute timescale for the Aboriginal rock art of the Kimberley region – landscape processes and multiple chronometers” will follow the pioneering work undertaken in the first Kimberley Rock Art Dating project (2014-2017). The project will run for four years from 2018 and has been awarded a major Linkage Grant by the Australian Research Council with support from the Kimberley Foundation Australia.

    The RAD-2 project will use new knowledge of complex processes on sandstone surfaces across the north Kimberley and an innovative combination of four scientific dating methods developed in the earlier work. The project expects to establish a well-dated sequence for Kimberley rock art based on replication of results and confirmation across different methods, all conducted in collaboration with Traditional Owners.

    The team
    The project is led by Prof Andy Gleadow together with Profs Janet Hergt, Jon Woodhead and Drs Helen Green, John Hellstrom and John Moreau from the University of Melbourne, Prof Peter Veth and Dr Sven Ouzman from the University of Western Australia, Prof Bert Roberts and Dr Tibi Codilean from the University of Wollongong, Prof Roy Goodacre from the University of Manchester, Dr David Fink from ANSTO and Cecilia Myers from Dunkeld Pastoral Company.

    The Dating project is supported by the Australian Research Council and Kimberley Foundation Australia. Partners include the University of Melbourne, the University of Wollongong, the University of Western Australia and ANSTO. Partner Investigators include Dunkeld Pastoral Co Pty Ltd, Kimberley Foundation Australia and Archae-aus Pty Ltd. The work is being done in collaboration with Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation.

     

    Four Dating Techniques

    Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL)
    Samples: Wasp Nests, Material: Quartz grains, Dating: Time since nest was built.

    OSL dating is based on the principle that quartz grains accumulate electrons over time but when exposed to sunlight all of these electrons are expelled-resetting the clock. When a mud wasp carries a mud droplet to it’s nest on a rock art panel, quartz grains held in that droplet are bleached by the light, resetting the OSL clock. This grain is then buried within the nest and allowed to accumulate electrons again- if we measure how many electrons there is we know how long that nest has been there and that the painting underneath must be older.

    Ground Edge Stone
    Wasp gathering mud droplet (left) and building it's nest on a rock art panel (right).
    Ground Edge Stone
    Wasp nest stubs under pigment of a 'Tassel' figure motif (left), Wasp nest over pigment of a 'Sash' figure motif (right).

    Uranium Series (U-series)
    Samples: Mineral Crusts, Material: Phosphate, Dating: Time since mineral formed.

    U-series is usually applied to calcite in limestone environments. The remarkable finding of the last 12 months has been that it can be applied to phosphate minerals in the exposed sandstone environments of the Kimberley- a world first. These minerals precipitate out from water which contains a certain level of Uranium but no Thorium. Over time the U decays to Th and by measuring the amount of each we can work out how long that mineral layer has been over the art surface-and that the painting must be older.

    Ground Edge Stone
    Mineral fringe formed around art panel (left), photo enlargement of minerals formed on sandstone (right).

    The mineral accretion is a mounted and polished piece that gives a cross-section through the detailed internal stratigraphy (layers). The overlaid scans are laser ablation trace element maps (the laser vaporises a bit of material in each layer and sends it to the mass spectrometer which analyses the concentration of certain elements)- in this case they are showing us where Uranium is focussed. ‘PPM’ on the scale stands for parts per million (so its a tiny amount). Yellow is high, scaling down to black at 0.

    Ground Edge Stone
    Layered mineral accretions collected from mineral fringe (left), Laser ablation trace element scans showing where the Uranium is focused (yellow) (right).

    Radiocarbon
    Samples: Wasp Nests, Material: Organic Material, Dating: Time since organism died.

    Mud wasps also furnish their nests with paralyzed spiders or caterpillars. When an organism is living it is constantly exchanging the radioactive isotope carbon 14 with the atmosphere. When that organism dies the exchange stops and the 14C starts to decay to the non-radioactive isotope, carbon 12. The radioactive decay occurs at a fixed rate so by measuring the ratios of the different carbon isotopes we can work out how long it has been since the organism died. That will tell us how old the carbon in the nest or beeswax is likely to be.

    Ground Edge Stone
    Beeswax figure (left), Modern nest over hand stencil motif (centre), nest stumps under pigment of motif (right).
    Rock Art Dating project - Damien Finch, University of Melbourne

    Cosmogenic Nuclides
    Samples: Sandstone fragments, Material: Cosmogenic Nuclides, Dating: Time since slab fall.

    Cosmic rays are constantly bombarding earth. The slabs shown in the examples below are protected from these cosmic rays until it falls and becomes exposed. Once exposed the absorption of these rays generates ‘cosmogenic isotopes’ that we can measure to tell us how long it has been exposed for. If there is art on that slab we know the art must be younger than the fall.

    Ground Edge Stone
    'Tassel' figure panel (left), the legs of figure can be seen on the face of the fallen rock. Fallen ceiling slab with art painted before the fall on the underside of the exposed rock.
    Tick tock there's a clock in that rock. Dr. David Fink, Nuclear Physicist, ANSTO
  • Current Project Kimberley Visions

    Kimberley Visions: rock art dynamics of northern Australia

    Kimberley Visions is a five year landmark study mapping the rock art and occupational history of the Northern Kimberley. It examines shared art styles across northern Australia and explores questions of regionalism and identity. Did similar styles occur between the Kimberley and Arnhem Land? What are our current understandings about shared traditions and why might they have changed through time?

    The rock art of the Kimberley is renowned for the insights it offers into the deep history of Aboriginal social practice. The art often depicts people, their belief systems and environments in great detail with elaborate compositions, depictions of personal ornaments and scenes of group dynamism providing windows into millennia of cultural practices. Rock art as living tradition is realised through a research collaboration with Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation and their Healthy Country Plan.

    Research Team

    Chief Investigator, Prof. Peter Veth, is the Kimberley Foundation Ian Potter Chair in Rock Art at UWA. Peter is one of Australia’s leading archaeologists. The other Chief Investigator is Dr. Bruno David from Monash University. Prof. Andrew Gleadow, a distinguished geologist brings expertise in rock art dating which is fundamental to the project. Assoc. Prof. Sven Ouzman has a considerable reputation in rock art research and is also on the Dating project team.

    Kimberley Visions includes world leading French geomorphologist Jean-Jacques Delannoy and renowned archaeologist Jean-Michel Geneste. Both Frenchmen have previously worked with Bruno Veth on the rock art cave at Nawarla Gabarnmang (NT). Delannoy is at the University of Savoie (France) and Director of the research laboratory EDYTEM (Environment, Dynamic and Mountain Areas). He led the scientific committee which advised the French government on the famous Chauvet cave facsimile. Geneste was the General Curator of Heritage and Director of the Center National de la Préhistoire, the only laboratory in France devoted exclusively to the scientific studies of rock art sites. Conservative then research director of the cave of Lascaux, he has been attached to the archaeological study of ornate caves for more than two decades. He directs the multidisciplinary study program of the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave, which brings together some fifty researchers of international origin.

     

    Ground Edge Stone
    Scottie Unangho, Ian Waina and Jean–Jacques Delannoy in the field, Drysdale River National Park Photo: Cas Bennetto

    Peter Veth (UWA) and Bruno David (Monash University) led three excavations at Wandjina Rock shelter and at another site with more than 1,000 cupules. John-Jacques Dellanoy from the French National Centre for Scientific Research carried out geomorphic interpretations of the formation history of the shelter and helped direct excavation towards recovery of wall fragments, possibly with art on them. A rich record of flaked and ground stone artefacts, grinding slabs, ochre and hearths have been recovered with samples being submitted for dating. Further work will be carried out at this rich site in 2017.

    At Oomarri on the King George River Traditional Owner Ambrose Chalarimeri and the Balanggarra Indigenous Protected Area Rangers oversaw and participated in an ambitious excavation program at a major site complex on a lake and adjacent a very rich rock art locale. Covering several hectares this occupation site was excavated to below 2.20 metres revealing intact hearth stone arrangements, flaking floors and implement production areas. Optical stimulated Luminescence (OSL) and 14C samples were taken. Another excavation was carried out in a smaller shelter with art as well as dating of crusts and mud wasp nests. Over 150 new sites and complexes were recorded at Oomarri and surrounds. The survey and excavation program will continue in 2017.

    The UWA team returned with staff from Universidad de Tarapacá, Chile and La Trobe University to complete the third month of fieldwork during September in the Forrest River catchment. They surveyed, often for the first time, areas for rock art and occupation sites with Rangers and Traditional Owners using helicopter, boats and on foot.

     

    Ground Edge Stone
    Bruno David and Peter Veth at Kimberley Visions project site. Photo: Cas Bennetto
  • Current Project Unlocking Environmental Archives

    Unlocking Environmental Archives

    Led by Associate Professor Hamish McGowan, Climate Research Group, The University of Queensland, and includes Dr Patrick Moss, The University of Queensland, Dr Samuel Marx, The University of Wollongong and Dr Andrew Hammond, University of Central Queensland, Mackay.

    Research Team:

    Mrs Emily Field (PhD Candidate), Professor Hamish McGowan and Associate Professor Patrick Moss; Climate Research Group, School of Geography Planning and Environmental Management; The University of Queensland, Brisbane. Dr Samuel Marx, Wollongong Isotope Geochronology Lab (WIGL), School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Wollongong.

    Project Aim: To develop new, high temporal resolution multi-proxy paleoclimate records for the Kimberley. The objective is to gain insight into late Quaternary environmental conditions including vegetation, climate (precipitation, temperature and atmospheric circulation), and anthropogenic burning.

    Achievements:

    Additional pollen and charcoal analysis has been conducted in 2015 on the Black Springs sediment core collected in 2005 by Dr Grahame Walsh and Dr Andrew Hammond from North Kimberley. This additional analysis has increased the temporal resolution of the record published by McGowan et al., 2012 and has extended this record from ~6000 cal. yrs BP to ~9000 cal. yrs BP with reliable age control.

    Understanding of the late Quaternary environment of Australia’s vast Kimberley region has to date been hindered by the region’s lack of classic palaeoenvironmental archives such as deep lake sediments. However, mound spring peat deposits in the region have been found to be a potentially rich archive of palaeoenvironmental data.
    A high resolution record from Black Springs mound spring in the Kimberley’s northwest is filling some of the current gaps in knowledge of the region’s environmental history.  See recent publication

    Sediment records to shed light on climate and environmental change

    A team of researchers from The University of Queensland and University of Wollongong is using microscopic fossils found in sediments at a spring in the northwest Kimberley to reconstruct the region’s environmental history.
    Early results show dramatic fluctuations in monsoon rainfall over the last 15,000 years followed by a sharp reduction in rainfall around 2,600 years before present, before recovering to conditions similar to present-day around 1,000 years ago.

    Additional springs were sampled in the 2015 dry season with various elements extracted from sediments for scientific dating. With input from experts at the Australian Nuclear Science Technology Organisation, dating of these sediments is being used to pinpoint when changes in the fossil record occurred. The degree of similarity between the site will then shed light on whether the changes seen in sediment records are the result of regional synchronous climate and environmental change or are simply local in nature.

    Ground Edge Stone
    L-R Hamish McGowan and Emily Field, University of Queensland, sampling Mud Springs, North Kimberley. Photo: Sam Marx
  • Proposed Projects Environmental Transformations

    Environmental Transformations linked to Early Human Occupation in Northern Australia*

    Research team

    Led by Dr Simon Haberle [Australian National University], with Dr George Perry (University of Auckland), Dr Simon Connor, Prof Peter Kershaw and Dr Sander van der Kaars (Monash Uni).

    Abstract

    How have interactions between climatic change, human activities and other disturbances over thousands of years shaped the landscapes we know today in Australia? Existing lines of evidence from palaeoecological and archaeological sources point to significant changes to biodiversity, vegetation cover, and fire frequency since the arrival of people into Australia sometime between 50000-40000 yr BP. The extent to which humans influenced or overrode natural processes through time remains unclear. High-resolution, multi-proxy data in an innovative vegetation and megafaunal reconstruction will provide the first quantitative assessment of the response of Australian tropical savannas in the Kimberley region to a range of natural and anthropogenic influences.

    Outcomes

    This project will use cutting-edge palaeoecological proxy analyses and modeling to reconstruct the response of Australian savanna to human and climate driven change over 1000s of years. The results will provide significant insight in to how climate change and people impacted on social, biological and physical systems in Australia.

    Status

    Current (ARC funding) * This project is Stage 2 of the KFA-funded Palaeoecological project featured below.

    Duration

    2014-2016

To preserve and protect this country with its secrets, mysteries and treasures in the ancient caves and rocks is vital to understand Australia's early history. I am pleased to know that the Kimberley Foundation is researching and caring for this unique and ancient land so that future generations can appreciate the significance of our rich cultural history.
Xavier Rudd
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