Is This the Oldest Cave Art on the Planet?

Underneath a rock slab which rests on dozens of narrow stilts researchers have found the world’s oldest stone axe, and a vast collection of painted artwork

The Gabarnmung cave paintings
The Gabarnmung cave paintings lie in southwestern Arnhem Land, in Australia’s Northern Territory. Google Earth

In the Australian science magazine Cosmos, Elizabeth Finkel reports on her journey to a rock formation in the northern part of the country that could very well be the site of the world’s oldest art.  Underneath a massive rock slab which rests on dozens of narrow stilts, researchers have found the world’s oldest stone axe, and a vast collection of painted artwork. Finkel describes the site, which is known as Gabarnmung:

Like the Sistine Chapel, the ceiling of the expansive rock shelter was a mural of breathtakingly vivid and bold works of art – hundreds of them. And the paintings extended up and down 36 remarkable sandstone columns that, like the pillars of a temple, appeared to support the cave.

The oldest agreed-upon site of human art lies in southern France—the Chauvet cave.  But the artwork of Gabarnmung could vastly predate the French works. Finklen describes how scientists are working meticulously to chemically date the paintings. There is a strong reason to suspect Gabarnmung’s seniority.

People lived at Gabarnmung for thousands of years before Chauvet was occupied: charcoal deposited above the very bottom layers of the Arnhem Land cave has been carbon-dated at 48,000 years old. For Europeans this is the stuff of pre-history; they have no direct connection to this era.

The most important thing about the Gabarnmung cave paintings, though, is not their age, not their color or their splendor or their intricacy. It’s that the Jawoyn people, the descendents of the ancient civilization that created the works, are still alive. For the Jawoyn, says Finkel,

The paintings, tools, spears, ochre-anointed skulls and bones, are their history.

The scientists’ work in the cave to understand and date the murals is giving the Jawoyn a scientific perspective on their culture’s history. Jean-Michel Geneste, a researcher at the Université de Bordeaux, says the exchange is going both ways.

f science can offer something to the Jawoyn, the Jawoyn have something to offer science. Geneste explains by phone from his 300-year-old stone cottage in the south of France: “We don’t have anyone to explain Chauvet Cave to us. In France, these are sites with no memory, no life. With Gabarnmung, we are lucky. There is the living culture, the memories. The Jawoyn can help us build a new knowledge.”

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