Indian and Australian researchers challenge the origin of art

10 May 2019

There is nothing 'primitive' about rock art. In fact, like all good art, it can provide us with a range of insights—into the past, and ourselves.

Rock art occurs worldwide and is the best evidence available to further our understanding of the cognitive abilities of our distant ancestors. It offers a glimpse into the lives, thoughts and experiences of early humans, and allows us to better comprehend the world as they saw it. But finding, dating and interpreting rock art requires patience, teamwork and the tools of the future.

For the past 15 years, Indian and Australian researchers have been collaborating in Bhanpura, central India, excavating and investigating an extensive rock cave known as the Daraki-Chattan. The site is important because of a discovery made within the cave: the world's oldest rock art, thought to be up to 500,000 years old.

Central to the project is Robert Bednarik, an Australian prehistorian, cognitive archaeologist and expert in the fields of rock art and experimental archaeology. As co-director of the excavation, he's working between Australia and India, with a team of experts from both countries, to figure out just how old the rock art is and what it might imply about our current beliefs on the origins of art and culture.    

It's a long-term project which began back in 2002. It received a welcome boost in 2016 via an Australia-India Council (AIC) grant.

"The analytical work required for the project turned out to be more expensive and extensive than we anticipated" says Robert. "So most of the funding provided by the Australia-India Council…was used for analytical work."

While analysing data may not be the 'sexy' headline-grabbing aspect of the project, it's one of the most critical parts of the puzzle. It's the analysis—the detailed examination of the information—that allows researchers to truly understand what's been found—and its wider implications across a range of disciplines.

"Of course, one of the key questions is, how old is it really? That's what we're trying to establish," says Robert. "It's been commonly believed that art and culture began in Europe, with discoveries such as the Lascaux cave paintings, which date back more than 15,000 years, supporting the theory. But the Daraki-Chattan rock art—believed to be hundreds of millennia older—proves beyond a doubt this is not the case.

Completely redefining our understanding of the origins of early art and culture is one thing, but the project has also resulted in another success—a brand new process for dating rock surfaces. It's called KEM, which stands for kinetic energy metamorphosis of rocks—an exciting development in the fields of geology and archeology.

The other benefit of this project is the fruitful partnership between Indian and Australia researchers. "It's been a very close collaboration between these international teams and one of the benefits is that Australia has been able to showcase its abilities in science," says Robert.

A project that has allowed researchers to find, date and interpret ancient rock art, develop new scientific processes and establish long-lasting international collaborations all at the same time? There's nothing primitive about that!

Read the full interview with Robert from our 'Australia & India. A Dynamic Mix' series.

Learn more about the economic potential of the Australia-India partnership in An India Economic Strategy to 2035 – Navigating from potential to delivery

Read more dynamic stories that form an integral part of the Australia-India relationship



Last Updated: 10 May 2019

“It’s been a very close collaboration between international teams (through which) Australia has been able to showcase its abilities in science.”

— Robert Bednarik