Mud Wasps Help To Put Date On Ancient Aboriginal Rock Art

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With the help of some mud wasps, an inventive dating method has revealed that a collection of Aboriginal rock art was created some 12,000 years ago, with some motifs perhaps dating back to around 17,000 years ago.

The Kimberly region of Western Australia is home to thousands of indigenous rock art pieces, forming one of the world’s most substantial bodies of ancient art on the planet. Among the extensive collection is a select gallery of images, known as the Gwion Gwion rock art, that depicts humans with slinky figures often wearing elaborate clothing and jewelry. 

Reported in the journal Science Advances, a team of archaeologists and the local Aboriginal community established a date for the Gwion Gwion rock art by carbon dating a number of mud wasp nests that were found under and on top of some of the paint.

Putting a solid date on ancient rock art can often be very tricky. Aboriginal artists often paint using ochre pigments made from iron oxide, which can’t be dated easily as they contain no organic material. On the other hand, it’s comparatively easy to date the nests of mud wasps using a technique called radiocarbon accelerator mass spectrometry.

For the new research, the team dated mud wasp nests linked to 21 paintings found at 14 different rock shelters. In 13 of the artworks, the nests lay on top, meaning the paintings are older than the nests. In six of them, the nests lay beneath, meaning the paintings are younger than the nests.

The research was carried out by academic archaeologists and the traditional owners of the artwork. University of Melbourne

It was previously posited that the art dated to over 16,000 years ago, but the new method of analysis has suggested they were most likely painted closer to 12,000 years ago, although one motif appeared to date to around 17,000 years ago.

“This is the first time we have been able to confidently say Gwion style paintings were created around 12,000 years ago. No one has been able to present the scientific evidence to say that before,” Damien Finch, PhD student at the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Melbourne, said in a statement.

This dating also holds some wider cultural significance as it further affirms that the artwork was created by the Kimberley peoples, an indigenous group who still live in the area today. It also sheds some light on the ancient history of this culture, clearly showcasing some of their most vibrant traditions and everyday life.

“While Aboriginal people have always known this is their rock art, this current work helps make that knowledge more widely known,” Dr Sven Ouzman, study author from the Centre for Rock Art Research and Management, said in a statement.

“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,” continued Professor Peter Veth, director of the University of Western Australia's Oceans Institute.

“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.”

Period7 Feb 2020

Media contributions


Media contributions


  • Archaeology
  • Rock Art
  • Aboriginal
  • Australia
  • Mudwasp
  • Radiocarbon
  • Gwion
  • Kimberley