Researchers are collaborating with a group of first nations australians to document ancient art in the bark of australia’s boab trees. They present a survey to locate and record these trees in the remote Tanami Desert.
Carved trees, also known as dendroglyphs or arborglyphs, are a fascinating but largely unknown form of cultural heritage in Australia.
They represent an important expression of Aboriginal visual cultural practice and tradition, although they have been overshadowed by the magnificent rock art corpus found throughout the continent. Nonetheless, the broader category of culturally modified trees, which includes scarring from many types of resource extraction and other cultural activities, is a growing area of study.
The Australian boab (Adansonia gregorii) is easily recognized by its huge, bottle-shaped trunk and is an economically important species for Indigenous Australians, with the pith, seeds, and young roots all eaten.
Many of these trees are also culturally significant, with motifs and symbols carved into them.
After more than two years of fieldwork, researchers from The Australian National University (ANU), The University of Western Australia, and The University of Canberra discovered 12 trees with carvings in collaboration with five Traditional Owners.
Many of the carved trees are hundreds of years old, according to Professor Sue O’Connor of the ANU School of Culture, History, and Language, and there is an urgency to produce high-quality recordings before these remarkable heritage trees die.
“Unlike most Australian trees, the inner wood of boabs is soft and fibrous and when the trees dies, they just collapse,” Professor O’Connor explained.
“Sadly, after lasting centuries if not millennia, this incredible artwork, which is equally as significant as the rock art Indigenous Australians are famous for, is now in danger of being lost.
Brenda Gladstone, a traditional owner, believes it is important that Indigenous knowledge and stories are preserved and continue to be shared for generations. “We are in a race against time to document this invaluable cultural heritage,” she said.
Professor O’Connor added Australian boabs have never been successfully dated.
“They are often said to live for up to 2,000 years but this is based on the ages obtained from some of the massive baobab trees in South Africa which are a different species,” she said. “We simply don’t know how old the Australian boabs are.
“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.
Researchers believe that, similar to how rock art was retouched to keep creation stories alive and the country fresh, carvings on boab trees were regularly re-grooved, most likely to maintain knowledge of the Dreamtime creative process and to ensure that people’s obligations to observe the law were kept fresh in the memory of those using such campsites.
The collaboration undertaken as part of this project demonstrates how bringing traditional Indigenous knowledge to bear on archaeological questions can build a richer, more holistic understanding of the cultural landscape and adds to our understanding of dendroglyphs in Australia.
More information: O’Connor, S., Balme, J., Frederick, U., Garstone, B., Bedford, R., Bedford, J., . . . Lewis, D. (2022). Art in the bark: Indigenous carved boab trees (Adansonia gregorii) in north-west Australia. Antiquity, 1-18. doi:10.15184/aqy.2022.129