Ancient Nests of Mud Wasps Used to Date Australian Aboriginal Rock Art

Mud wasp nests have helped establish a date for the Gwion Gwion rock art in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

A typical remnant mud wasp nest (A) overlying pigment from a Gwion motif before removal and (B) the remainder with pigment revealed underneath. Image credit: Damien Finch.

“The Kimberley region hosts thousands of rock art sites with some earlier depictions in a remarkably good state of preservation,” said Professor Peter Veth, from the Centre for Rock Art Research and Management at the University of Western Australia.

“They provide a window into how Aboriginal people thought and lived in a socially and environmentally dynamic world and are of great significance to Kimberley Traditional Owners today.”

“One of the best known styles showing human figures with complex headdress and body ornaments is the Gwion Gwion.”

“Formerly known as ‘Bradshaws,’ their extraordinary detail challenged European observers and led to more than a century of speculation about their age and authorship.”

“This is the first time we have been able to confidently say Gwion style paintings were created around 12,000 years ago,” said Damien Finch, a Ph.D. student at the University of Melbourne.

“No one has been able present the scientific evidence to say that before.”

The rock paintings depict graceful human figures with a wide range of decorations including headdresses, arm bands, and anklets. Some of the paintings are as small as 15 cm (6 inches), others are more than 2 m (6.5 feet) high.

Lack of organic matter in the pigment used to create the art had previously ruled out radiocarbon dating.

But the researchers were able to use dates on 24 mud wasp nests under and over the art to determine both maximum and minimum age constraints for paintings in the Gwion style.

One wasp nest date suggested one painting was older than 16,000 years, but the pattern of the other 23 dates is consistent with the Gwion Gwion period being 12,000 years old.

“A painting beneath a wasp nest must be older than the nest, and a painting on top of a nest must be younger than the nest,” Finch said.

“If you date enough of the nests, you build up a pattern and can narrow down an age range for paintings in a particular style.”

“The 21 new dates securely placed this style in the Pleistocene era (greater than 10,000 years),” said Dr. Sven Ouzman, from the Centre for Rock Art Research and Management at the University of Western Australia.

“While Aborignal people have always known this is their rock art, this current work helps make that knowledge more widely known.”

“More exciting dating work awaits, with Gwion Gwion imagery known to occupy the middle part of a very long chronology of making rock art in the Kimberley that continues to this day.”

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