The worlds of archaeology and art have just grown even more exciting with the recent announcement that Kimberley Aboriginal art found in northwestern Australia may actually date from the last Ice Age, as new evidence suggests that the rock art is 16,000 years old. After originally being discovered, the estimated time frame for the creation of these paintings was deemed to be roughly around 10,000 years of age, but with this week’s news, the Kimberely Aboriginal art is now on par with much of the early rock and cave art that has been discovered throughout Europe.
When scientists were first examining the Aboriginal paintings, they were dismayed to find that using Uranium Series dating wasn’t fruitful in yielding results because of contamination. Similarly, carbon dating also failed to date the rock art. The University of New England’s June Ross has said that it is “very difficult” to date rock art, and it is clear that the team working on the Kimberley Aboriginal art needed to be very creative in order to date the rocks. What the team did next shows just how sheer determination can yield extremely fruitful results.
As reported through SBS Australia, fossilized mud wasp nests found on top of the Kimberley Aboriginal rock art were used as these were the only type of material the team found that would actually stick to rock surfaces and could be used. They then used something called optically-stimulated luminescence, also known as OSL, in order to date the wasp nests. Since the wasps were once busy collecting sand from riverbeds, the OSL technique was able to pinpoint the very last time that the sand had been exposed to light of the sun.
Macquarie University’s Dr. Kira Westaway explained that this method of dating would elicit a bare minimum estimation of the age of the rock art.
“We don’t know how long it was between the time the painting was painted and the time the wasps came along, but a wasp very conveniently built this little time capsule on top of this painting, and they built that 16,000 years ago.”
Australian Network News has reported that members of the Kimberley Aboriginal community helped with the investigation and would have been there to answer questions, as well as to help preserve the rock art and make sure that nothing was damaged. This is crucial as many cave paintings in Europe have been damaged by too many visitors.
“They were there when we did the sampling, to make sure that they were happy, that the art wasn’t being damaged. We were very careful to make sure that their wishes and their opinions were heard, so that we worked together as a team – which was really important to us.”
If the wasp nest hovering over the Kimberley Aboriginal art is 16,000 years old, it is certainly possible the paintings could be much older than that. As an example, the Paleolithic cave paintings in Lascaux, France, are thought to be 20,000 years old. Who is to say that the Kimberley paintings aren’t from the Paleolithic era also?
One thing is for certain, and that is that this newly dated Aboriginal art is sure to bring curious people flocking from all over the world to Kimberley, Australia. Cathy Goonack of the Winun Ngari Aboriginal Corporation thinks that this is a “good science story” and that people will be very interested in not just seeing these breathtaking paintings in person, but also listening to the stories of the descendants of those who created them. These descendants, however, are very matter of fact about the paintings.
“They’re not really bothered by how old the art is. For them, everything is in the Dreamtime, so it’s a part of their culture and ancestry and the art is very very important to them, but the actual age doesn’t concern them so much.”
As with all art everywhere, perhaps it is the spirit of creation that matters the most rather than the time in which the art was created. But the fact still remains that this Kimberley Aboriginal art is a very exciting new discovery for the world.
[Featured Image by Pics by Nick/Shutterstock]