Research sheds light on age of Burrup rock art

New research has revealed a large collection of Indigenous rock engravings in the Pilbara could be the amongst the oldest in the world.

Research sheds light on age of Burrup rock art
Rock art in the Burrup Peninsula [Credit: ABC/Ebonnie Spriggs]
Researchers from the Australian National University have measured the natural erosion rates of rock on the Burrup Peninsula which is home to one of the world's largest galleries of rock art.

The results show the area has some of the lowest erosion rates anywhere in the world, helping to preserve the art.

Professor Brad Pillans says the combination of hard rock and a dry climate means the engravings could be up to 60,000 years old.

"While we haven't actually dated the rock art directly, what we have been able to measure are very, very low erosion rates on the surfaces on the rock associated with the rock art," he said.

"[That] indicates there is the potential for rock art up to 60,000 years to be preserved on the Burrup."

Professor Pillans says Burrup provides the perfect environment for preserving the rock art.

"The erosion rates we determined on the surfaces of the rocks suggest over a thousand years, less than 0.2 of a millimetre of the rock would be removed by natural erosion processes," he said.

"So, it means the surfaces on which the rock art is preserve on the Burrup are very stable to ongoing natural erosion rates."

He says the art is difficult to date.

"The oldest engravings likely, but it's very difficult to prove the age of art like this because it's cut into the rock surface and it's very difficult for scientists to determine the exact age, so we could certainly claim it has the potential to be amongst the oldest, if not the oldest in the world, certainly the potential to be the oldest in Australia," he said.

"Other rock art sites around the world have proven to be very difficult to date and so if we were to claim the Burrup was amongst the oldest in the world we would say amongst the oldest known in the world because there have been very few studies of this kind undertaken anywhere."

Professor Pillans says changes in culture are reflected in the rock art.

"When you look at the images on the Burrup, there's an extraordinary range of different styles and archaeologists can say a lot about the progression in styles over time," he said.

"So, some of the earliest images have particular features and so that tells us something about the changes in the culture and the changes in the things the Indigenous people were describing in their art."

Source: ABC News Website [April 18, 2013]

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