Saturday, December 2, 2017


When I first became interested in studying rock art our only way at hoping to have any success at aging was by using comparative methods. Researchers would look for overlapping images to set up a sequence of styles, and compare the images to artifacts in collections looking for stylistic comparisons. This was reasonably successful for relatively recent rock art produced by people who were well represented in museum collections, but was of no use for older material. Now, an exciting story from Australia illustrates how sophisticated we are becoming in dating rock art.

16,000-year-old yam-like
motif. Kimberley rock art,
Western Australia.

A team of researchers in Australia have dated more than 200 rock art sites in northwest Kimberley, and the results indicate that the earliest examples date back to the Paleolithic. The time depth of occupation in Australia has long been known although the earliest dates are still being pushed back as new research adds data, but this early dating of rock art now means that Australians were making art as early as some of the cave art in Europe.

A team of researchers with the Australian Research Council used a number of different dating techniques, but one of the most interesting (and perhaps unique) relied on "optically stimulated luminescence, dating sand grains in fossilized mud wasp nests that had been built over the ancient images." (  2016)

"Accelerator mass spectrometry was also used to date the carbon in the wasp nests and spots of beeswax found on the images. June Ross of the University of New England said that the oldest image in the study, "a perfectly preserved yam-like motif painted in mulberry colored ochre on the ceiling of a deep cavern," was dated to more than 16,000 years old." (  2016)

Kimberley rock art,
Western Australia.

The project depended upon the cooperation of aboriginal Australian people as well. "Chair of the Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation Cathy Goonack said the rock art brought visitors from all around Australia, and around the world to the Mitchell Plateau. "They want to look at our art and hear our stories; now we've got a good science story that we can tell people as well. We'll use this information to help us look after our art," she said."" ( 2016)

I used the word unique above, not in the sense that the techniques are so unusual, but that the application of optically stimulated luminescence to sand grains in mud wasp nests, and accelerator mass spectrometry to beeswax found on a pictograph surface seems to me to be inventive and creative. Such dedicated studies might well serve as an example for much of the rest of the world.

NOTE: For further information on these reports you should read the originals at the sites listed below.

REFERENCES:, Sept. 1, 2016

Staff Writers,
2016    Researchers Date "World's Earliest Rock Art" in WA's Kimberley Region, August 31, 2016,

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