Wasp nests provide the key to dating 12,000-year-old Aboriginal rock art

The technique involved dating mud wasp nest remnants found both beneath and on top of the paint

Aboriginal rock art

New radiocarbon dates of mud wasp nest remains at rock art sites in western Australia indicate that a distinctive Aboriginal painting style known as Gwion (example shown) flourished later than often assumed, approximately 12,000 years ago.

TimJN1/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Fanciful human figures adorning rock-shelters in western Australia’s Kimberley region have often been assumed to date back 17,000 years or more. In a stinging rebuke of that idea, a new study suggests that most of these figures were painted much more recently — around 12,700 to 11,500 years ago.

Ages of rock art in Southeast Asia (SN: 11/7/18), Australia and elsewhere are notoriously difficult to establish (SN: 10/28/19). Geoscientist Damien Finch of the University of Melbourne in Australia and his colleagues radiocarbon dated small, hardened pieces of 24 mud wasp nests positioned partly beneath or partly on top of 21 Gwion-style rock paintings, thus providing maximum and minimum age estimates. The dated paintings came from 14 Aboriginal rock art sites. Gwion art depicts elaborately garbed human figures and objects such as boomerangs and spears.

Most radiocarbon dates from the mud wasp nests indicate the Gwion figures were painted around 12,000 years ago, at least 5,000 years later than typically thought, the scientists report February 5 in Science Advances. Radiocarbon evidence from a nest partly overlying one of the paintings, however, suggests it was, in fact, created about 17,000 years ago or more, they say.

A 1997 study estimated that another Gwion painting was done at least 16,400 years ago, based on a different way of estimating a mud wasp nest’s age. That investigation dated the time since quartz particles in a mud wasp nest overlying a Gwion figure were last exposed to sunlight. But some rock art researchers disagree about whether that age estimate was accurate.

Radiocarbon dating of mud wasp nest remains needs to be combined with other rock art dating approaches, including the method from the 1997 study, to evaluate additional Gwion paintings, says archaeologist June Ross of the University of New England in Armidale, Australia. Once securely dated, Gwion art will provide insights into ancient Aboriginal cultural practices and social life, predicts Ross, who did not participate in the new study.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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