Australia's oldest painting?
A red ochre rock art depiction of two emu-like birds (Genyornis newtoni?)
with their necks outstretched.
Image: Ben Gunn [larger view]
An Australian Aboriginal rock art may depict a giant bird that is thought to have become extinct some 40,000 years ago, thereby making it the oldest rock painting on the island continent. The red ochre drawing was first discovered two years ago, but archaeologists were only able to confirm the finding two weeks ago, when they first visited the remote site on the Arnhem Land plateau in north Australia.
"Initially, we thought it was another big emu," said consulting archaeologist Ben Gunn, a founding member of the Australian Rock Art Research Association who was documenting the Niwarla Gabarnmung site for the Jawoyn Association.
Niwarla Gabarnmung is located in southwest Arnhem Land in Australia's Northern Territory, a region that is filled with thousands of aboriginal rock art sites.
"The animal wasn't an emu; it looked like the megafauna bird Genyornis, with thick, huge toes and short legs," stated Mr Gunn.
"When we got to the beak we knew that was no emu. We thought, 'goodness do we have a Genyornis?'," said anthropologist and paleontologist Peter Murray, who is now retired from the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.
Genyornis had a big beak that it used to eat fruits and probably smaller animals that were either too stupid or too slow to escape. Genyornis fossils reveal that it had large hoof-like claws on its toes, adapting it to a cursorial life.
"If it is a Genyornis -- and it certainly does have all the features of one -- it would be the oldest dated visual painting that we've got in Australia," said Mr Gunn.
Illustration: Peter Trusler/Melbourne Museum
[larger view of painting and larger view of skeleton]
Genyornis was a giant flightless bird that was taller and heavier than either the ostrich or emu. It had powerful legs and tiny wings, and probably closely resembled ducks and geese, its closest living relatives. Bones from a number of Genyornis have been unearthed, suggesting that they lived in flocks. Fossil eggs and footprints have also been found.
Interestingly, Genyornis bones have been excavated in association with human artifacts in Cuddie Springs in the Australian state of New South Wales. It is likely that humans lived alongside these birds, and some scientists think that humans may have contributed to their extinction.
"The details on this painting indicate that it was done by someone who knew that animal very well," remarked Mr Gunn, adding that the details could not have been passed down through oral storytelling.
Paintings of other extinct animals, including the thylacine, or tasmanian tiger, the giant echidna and giant kangaroo, are also found in the area.
Two of the long-vanished big beasts of Pleistocene Australia,
the Komodo dragon-like Megalania and a species of giant flightless bird
known as Genyornis newtoni.
Illustration: Peter Trusler for Wildlife of Gondwana/NOVA (PBS).
Genyornis lived during the Pleistocene and was the last of the dromornithids, a group of large, flightless birds whose fossil bones have only been found in Australia.
"Either the painting is 40,000 years old, which is when science thinks Genyornis disappeared," Mr Gunn elaborated. "Or alternatively, Genyornis lived a lot longer than science has been able to establish."
"We have very few dates from northern Australia, aside from the earliest human dates from Arnhem Land," commented paleontologist Gavin Prideaux, a megafauna expert with Flinders University in Adelaide, adding that it's difficult to know exactly when Genyornis went extinct.
"It's currently disputed in scientific circles."
"You can't be sure [it's a Genornis] because there's stylistic elements [to rock art], but I can't think of any reason it's not Genyornis," said Dr Prideaux.
The Jawoyn people say they are excited the painting could be Australia's oldest dated rock art. The Jawoyn are a group of Indigenous peoples who are the traditional owners of the land in Australia's Northern Territory.
Wes Miller, executive director of the Jawoyn Association, says the painting is one of thousands that has been rediscovered throughout Arnhem Land in recent years.
"It verifies that the Jawoyn people were living in this country for a very, very long time," said Mr Miller.
"Once again this is clearly a demonstration of how long Jawoyn people have been in this country," remarked Mr Miller. "It's great from that point of view. It's pretty exciting stuff."
But other experts disagree with the painting's antiquity.
"We need to take this discovery with great caution. The probability of having a painting surviving so long outside of caves is very small," stated Robert Bednarik, the world's authority on rock art. Further studies, such as radiocarbon dating of the paint, are planned.
If this painting is as old as some authorities think, it will be among the oldest ever discovered. For example, the earliest known European cave paintings were created roughly 32,000 years ago.
ABC News [quotes, image of the painting]
The Australian [quotes].