Archaeologists race against the climate to preserve aboriginal art

Trees that have stood for thousands of years may soon collapse due to climate change. If they do, they’ll take irreplaceable aboriginal art with them.

When you think of ancient art, you may think of rock art. However, a team of researchers from The Australian National University (ANU), The University of Western Australia and University of Canberra, working alongside five Traditional Owners has found ancient carvings on boab trees in northwestern Australia. O’Connor and colleagues, writing in the journal Antiquity, report on a race against time to record these dendroglyphs before the trees bearing them die.

A large tree with a notably broad trunk in a grassland dotted with other slender trees. On its trunk is a spiral, which indicates a snake.
Large boab tree with coiled snake carving, northern Tanami Desert. Image: Darrell Lewis. Source O’Connor et al. 2022.

The trees in question are Australian boabs, one of eight species of baobabs (Adansonia sp.). The other baobabs are found on the other side of the Indian Ocean, where they’re in trouble due to climate change. The Australian boabs may also be in trouble, and when they die any art on them is lost. “Unlike most Australian trees, the inner wood of boabs is soft and fibrous and when the trees dies, they just collapse,” Professor O’Connor said.

European explorers first recorded art on the boabs in the nineteenth century, but there is good reason to believe some of the art is much older than it. A problem is that it’s difficult to put an age to a boab. In their article, O’Connor and colleagues write: “Like its African and Madagascan relatives, the Australian boab is extraordinarily long-lived; however, establishing the absolute age of a tree can be difficult because the inner part of the trunk is soft and fibrous and does not record annual or seasonal growth rings. AMS radiocarbon dating of the stable architecture of the inner cavities of large, living trees in Africa has produced good results… Using this method, some of the oldest and largest of the African baobabs have been shown to have lived for more than 1500 years, with one individual more than 2000 years old… This particular method has not yet been applied in Australia, however, and the only boab tree dated by radiocarbon methods so far returned a modern age…”

The gouty stem is a bottle shape with branches out about above the neck of the bottle. 19th century Europeans gaze upon the carvings in what would be awe, as much as a 19th century European can.
Thomas Baines, Figures Painted on Rocks and Carved on a Gouty Stem Tree. Source: Collection of the Herbarium, Library, Art & Archives, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 1850s MO 108 / O’Connor et al. 2022.

“A hint of the great age of some of the Australian boabs can be gauged from those trees with historic European inscriptions. The oldest known example is the National Heritage-listed’ Mermaid tree’ on the Kimberley coast…, which bears the inscription ‘HMC Mermaid 1820’. This was carved during Phillip Parker King’s second voyage around Australia, while his ship was careened for repair to its keel. At the time of carving, the girth of the Mermaid tree was measured at 29 feet (8.8m)… Today, more than 200 years later, the inscription is still clear, despite the trunk’s circumference increasing to approximately 12m…”

The carvings are most frequently snakes. This, the traditional owners say, is connected to the Lingka Dreaming. In the article, the authors explain: “the trees are manifestations of the travels of the ancestral Lingka being, which gave the landscape its present form. The Dreaming has its origin in the west, near Broome in Western Australia, and travels east across the Kimberley and into the Browns Range and Hooker Creek region in the Northern Territory. The boabs and their carvings are thus central to the Lingka clan’s identity—a tangible symbol of their Dreaming and connection to country.”

Brenda Garstone holds a scale in what seems an almost futile attempt to measure the size of a boab that would take four people to surround its circumference. The overall effect emphasises the size of even the smallest boab. On the shaded side of the trunk is a carving of a snake, and possibly more.
Traditional owner Brenda Garstone at the smallest of the carved boabs recorded in the northern Tanami Desert. Image: S. O’Connor. Source: O’Connor et al. 2022.

Artefacts found by the trees show that these sites were campsites used by the indigenous people as they walked around the landscape. The authors note in this part of Australia, the northern Tanami Desert, there is little in the way of shelter. The foliage of the boab trees would act as protection from rain in the wet season and as shade in the dry season. As people stopped here, they would re-groove their carvings as part of the community’s way of refreshing memory of the Dreamtime.

In a press release, O’Connor says: “There are hundreds more boabs visible on Google Earth, which we didn’t manage to get to on this trip. They remain to be checked for carvings on our next Tanami adventure.

“We hope that our research will bring the art in the bark of these remarkable trees to many more Australians so that they can be appreciated for generations to come.” 

READ THE ARTICLE

O’Connor, S., Balme, J., Frederick, U., Garstone, B., Bedford, R., Bedford, J., Rivers, A., Bedford, A. and Lewis, D. (2022) “Art in the bark: Indigenous carved boab trees (Adansonia gregorii) in north-west Australia,” Antiquity, pp. 1–18. https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2022.129.

Alun (he/him) is the Producer for Botany One. It's his job to keep the server running. He's not a botanist, but started running into them on a regular basis while working on writing modules for an Interdisciplinary Science course and, later, helping teach mathematics to Biologists. His degrees are in archaeology and ancient history.

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