Bookended by Wasp Nests, These Aboriginal Artworks May Finally Have Definitive Dates

By Katherine J. Wu/Smithsonianmag.com

Tiny, trim and vibrantly colored, mud wasps are far more concerned with snaring snacks of spiders than appreciating works of art. But the insects will still build their nests on artistic creations—and in doing so, they sometimes inadvertently lend a helping wing to modern research efforts.

Reporting this week in the journal Science Advancesa team of researchers has used this stingingly clever technique to date Aboriginal art adorning rock shelters in Australia’s Kimberley region. Cobbled together in layers that lie beneath or atop the paintings, the nests place the paintings’ approximate age at 12,000 years old—making them about 5,000 years younger than previously estimated.

The thousands of dancing human figures depicted on the Kimberley rock shelter walls, called Gwions by modern researchers, have been known to science for more than a century. Slender, exquisite, and often decked out with headdresses, tassels, boomerangs, and spears, Gwions don’t resemble other types of Aboriginal art, and the circumstances surrounding their creation have remained mostly mysterious.

In the 1990s, scientists led by the University of Wollongong geochronologist Richard “Bert” Roberts noticed a series of ancient wasp nests constructed atop several of the Gwion figures. Dating those nests, they reasoned, would put an effective…

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