A 17,300-year-old painting on the ceiling of a rock shelter in Drysdale River National Park, painted by ancestors of the Balanggarra people, has been revealed as the oldest-known rock painting in Australia.

Working with Traditional Owners from Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, researchers from the University of Western Australia and University of Melbourne dated fossilised mud nests built by wasps to calculate the age of the two-metre long painting of a kangaroo.

Kwini Traditional Owner Ian Waina said locals and visitors were all keen to know how old the rock art was.

“It’s something that all tribes want to know — how old are our paintings?” Waina told ABC News.

“And tourists always ask too, but many Aboriginal people have no idea. What we’ve done now with the scientists is open up the gate to find out.”

Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation Chair Cissy Gore-Birch told The West Australian partnerships are important in preserving First Nations histories and cultural identities.

“It’s important that Indigenous knowledge and stories are not lost and continue to be shared for generations to come.”

“The dating of this oldest known painting in an Australian rock shelter holds a great deal of significance for Aboriginal people and Australians and is an important part of Australia’s history,” Gore-Birch said.

The naturalistic art style that was analysed at the national park is one of the oldest of six distinct phases of rock art paintings recorded in the Kimberley region.

University of Western Australia archaeologist Professor Peter Veth was part of the rock art dating project. He said the style shift reflects social changes in the region due to a changing climate.

“The art, those pigments, those markings are fixed in the sandstone, they’re surviving from the Pleistocene, from before 12,000 years ago,” Professor Veth told ABC News.

“The fact that this [rock art] is right throughout larger parts of the Kimberley is truly breathtaking.”

Precisely dating rock art is a difficult process, scientists used fossilised wasp nests that were protected within the shelters to date the art. Over time, the nests were painted over or hardened and fossilised over the artwork.

By Darby Ingram