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Ancient rock art's colours come from microbes

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A particular type of ancient rock art in Western Australia maintains its vivid colours because it is alive, researchers have found.

While some rock art fades in hundreds of years, the "Bradshaw art" remains colourful after at least 40,000 years.

Jack Pettigrew of the University of Queensland in Australia has shown that the paintings have been colonised by colourful bacteria and fungi.

These "biofilms" may explain previous difficulties in dating such rock art.

Professor Pettigrew and his colleagues studied 80 of these Bradshaw rock artworks - named for the 19th-Century naturalist who first identified them - in 16 locations within Western Australia's Kimberley region.

They concentrated on two of the oldest known styles of Bradshaw art - Tassel and Sash - and found that a vast majority of them showed signs of life, but no paint.

The team dubbed the phenomenon "Living pigments".

"'Living pigments' is a metaphorical device to refer to the fact that the pigments of the original paint have been replaced by pigmented micro-organisms," Professor Pettigrew told BBC News.

"These organisms are alive and could have replenished themselves over endless millennia to explain the freshness of the paintings' appearance."

Among the most frequent inhabitants of the boundaries of the artwork was a black fungus, thought to be of the group of fungi known as Chaetothyriales.

Successive generations of these fungi grow by cannibalising their predecessors. That means that if the initial paint layer - from tens of thousands of years ago - had spores of the fungus within it, the current fungal inhabitants may be direct descendants.
 
 

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