June 1, 2010
ROCK art found in central Arnhem Land could be among the oldest examples of rock painting in the world - if the birds depicted prove to be what scientists think they are.
A rock art specialist, Robert Gunn, said he suspected the paintings depicted the long-extinct genyornis.
Verification of the age of the paintings would more than double the potential age of painted rock art in Australia, he said.
The genyornis, a flightless bird which stood three times the height of an emu, was one of many megafauna to became extinct when humans began burning the continent for hunting and land-clearing 40,000 years ago.
Mr Gunn, a Victorian private consultant employed by an Aboriginal group, the Jawoyn Association, to assess the rock art, said rock once attached to the site of the paintings was yet to be dated. But he said key to dating the work would be confirming the species depicted.
He said the thick, rounded beak of the painted birds was a characteristic of the genyornis.
''When we first started recording it, I assumed it was an emu but when we got up to the beak I realised it was not an emu beak. It's more like a parrot beak,'' he said.
The painted birds, the largest of which is a metre in height, also feature a crop or a muscular pouch near the throat which forms part of the digestive tract and short, very solid legs.
Bert Roberts, director of the University of Wollongong's centre for archaeological science, said if the image was of a genyornis it would date the paintings as at least 40,000 years old, making it one of the oldest examples of rock art in the world.
''It would slightly predate some of the oldest reliably dated rock art of parts of Europe, which go back 30,000 years,'' he said.