Carvings on Australia’s boab trees reveal a generation’s lost history

Archaeologists and an Aboriginal family are collaborating to rediscover long-lost links to the land.

This snake-engraved boab is one of 12 rediscovered during an expedition to Australia's Tanami Desert in 2021. The carvings have cultural ties to the Jaru, an Aboriginal group from Western Australia's Kimberley region. LEWIS, D. Spread the word:

Brenda Garstone is looking for her ancestors.

Parts of her cultural heritage can be found in the Tanami Desert in northwestern Australia, where dozens of ancient boab trees have Aboriginal designs carved into them. These tree carvings, known as dendroglyphs, could be hundreds or even thousands of years old, but western researchers have paid little attention to them.

That is beginning to change. Garstone, who is Jaru, an Aboriginal group from the Kimberley region of northwestern Australia, collaborated with archaeologists in the winter of 2021 to find and document some of these carvings.

For Garstone, the expedition was an attempt to reassemble the disparate parts of her identity. Garstone's mother and three siblings were among the estimated 100,000 Aboriginal children taken from their families by the Australian government 70 years ago. The siblings, like many others, were sent to a Christian mission thousands of kilometers away. For Garstone's family to reclaim its birthright, it would take decades of effort and a series of unrelated events, including the gift of an heirloom and a researcher's quest to discover what happened to a missing 19th-century European naturalist.

Brenda Garstone joined the research team on an expedition to the Tanami desert in search of boab trees — and the carvings on them. This boab has a diameter of only 5.5 meters, making it the smallest carved tree discovered during the expedition. O'Connor, S.

When the siblings returned to their mother's homeland as teenagers, Garstone's aunt, Anne Rivers, received a coolamon, a shallow dish decorated with two bottle trees, or boabs. Rivers, who was only two months old at the time, was told that the trees were part of her mother's Dreaming, the cultural story that linked her and her family to the land.

Researchers have meticulously described 12 boabs with dendroglyphs in the Tanami desert that have links to Jaru culture in a study published on October 11 in Antiquity. And just in time: the clock is ticking for these ancient engravings as their host trees succumb to the ravages of time, increased livestock pressure, and possibly climate change.

The race to document these engravings before it's too late is about more than just learning about an ancient art form. It's also a matter of healing the wounds caused by policies designed to sever Garstone's family's ties to the land.

"It's been incredible to find evidence that connects us to the land," she says. "The puzzle we'd been putting together is now complete."

An outback archive

This project relied heavily on an outback archive of Australian boabs (Adansonia gregorii). Boabs are a species of tree found in Australia's northwestern corner, distinguished by their massive trunks and iconic bottle shape.

Since the early 1900s, anthropologists have written about the existence of trees carved with Aboriginal symbols in Australia. According to these records, people were continuously carving and recarving some trees until at least the 1960s. However, when compared to other forms of Aboriginal art discovered in the area, such as the visually stunning paintings (SN: 2520), "there does not appear to be a wide general awareness of this art form," says Moya-Smith, curator of anthropology and archaeology at the Western Australia Museum in Perth, who was not involved with the study.

Darrell Lewis has seen his fair share of carved boabs. For the past half-century, the historian and archaeologist now at the University of New England in Adelaide have worked in the Northern Territory. Lewis has discovered engravings made by cattle drovers, WWII soldiers, and Aboriginal peoples. He refers to this eclectic collection of engravings as "the outback archive," a physical testament to the people who have settled in this rugged part of Australia.

Lewis was searching the Tanami Desert in 2008 for what he hoped would be his most significant addition to the archive. He'd heard rumors that a century ago, a cattle drover working in the area discovered a firearm hidden in a boab marked with the letter "L." A rough cast brass plate from the firearm, which was later purchased by the National Museum of Australia, was inscribed with the name of the famous German naturalist Ludwig Leichhardt, who went missing in Western Australia in 1848 while traveling.

The Tanami is generally thought to be outside of the natural range of the boab. Lewis rented a helicopter in 2007 and flew across the desert in search of the Tanami's hidden stash of boabs. During his flyovers, he discovered approximately 280 centuries-old boabs and hundreds of younger trees scattered across the desert.

"Nobody, not even locals," he recalls, "really knew there were any boabs out there."

Finding lost boab carvings

Boab trees are found in Australia's northwestern corner. A survey (green rectangle) of a region on the outskirts of the Tanami Desert revealed a patch of boab trees carved with dendroglyphs, which link the region to the King Brown Snake Dreaming, or Lingka Dreaming (gray arrow). This ancient trail connects cultural sites and stories over thousands of kilometers, mirroring the journey of Lingka, one of the spiritual beings who shaped the landscape into what it is today.

His 2008 ground expedition to find the elusive "L" proved fruitless. However, the search did turn up dozens of boabs with dendroglyphs.

Lewis documented the location of these trees in a report for the National Museum of Australia, which had hired him to search for the "L" carving. That data sat untouched for years until it was discovered by Sue O'Connor, an archaeologist at Australian National University in Canberra.

Crumble into dust

In 2018, O'Connor was among a group of archaeologists who were concerned about the survival of boabs. That year, scientists studying baobabs — a close relative of boabs — in Africa noticed that some of the older trees were dying out at an unusually rapid rate, possibly due to climate change (SN: 61818).

O'Connor was concerned by the news. Dendroglyphs are frequently engraved on the oldest and largest boabs. While no one knows how old these trees can live, researchers believe their lifespans may be comparable to those of their African cousins, which can live for up to 2,000 years.

When these ancient trees die, they vanish into thin air. Unlike other trees, the wood of boabs can be preserved for hundreds of years after death, whereas the wood of other trees can be preserved for hundreds of years. Lewis has seen boabs crumble into the dust after being struck by lightning a few years ago.

"You'd never guess there was a tree there," he says.

It's unclear whether climate change will endanger Australian boabs. However, the trees are under attack from livestock, which peeled back the bark of boabs to access the wet interior. "We put it all together and thought we should try to find some of the carvings because they probably won't be there in a few years," O'Connor says.

Lewis' report served as a good starting point for this work. So O'Connor contacted the historian and suggested they work together.

Garstone was four years into her own research into her family's history at the time. The long and circuitous search led her to a small museum run by a friend of Lewis'. The curator told Garstone about the carved boabs after she mentioned she was from Halls Creek, a town near where Lewis did his fieldwork in 2008.

"I was like, 'Wait, what?'" That's part of our Dreaming!'" she remembers.

Brenda Garstone's aunt, Anne Rivers, holds a coolamon, a shallow dish passed down through her family. The boabs painted on the dish were an early indication of the connection between Tanami dendroglyphs and her cultural heritage. Balme, Jane

Dreamings is a western term for the vast array of stories that, among other things, recount how spiritual beings shaped the landscape. Dreaming stories also pass down knowledge and inform social interaction and behavior rules.

Garstone knew from oral history that her grandmother had ties to the Bottle Tree Dreaming, as evidenced by the trees painted on her aunt's coolamon. The Bottle Tree Dreaming is one of the Lingka Dreaming track's eastern manifestations (Lingka is the Jaru word for the King Brown Snake). This path runs for thousands of kilometers from Australia's western coast into the neighboring Northern Territory, marking Lingka's journey across the landscape and serving as a byway for people traveling across the country.

Garstone, along with her mother, aunt, and a smattering of other family members, joined the archaeologists on their mission to rediscover the boabs, eager to confirm that the boabs were a part of this Dreaming.

Into the Tanami

On a winter day in 2021, the group set out from Halls Creek and camped on a remote pastoral station populated mostly by cattle and feral camels. Every day, the team boarded all-wheel-drive vehicles and drove to the last known location of the engraved boabs.

It was exhausting work. The crew would often drive for hours to a rumored boab location, only to have to stand on top of the vehicles and scan for trees in the distance. Furthermore, wooden stakes protruding from the ground shredded the vehicles' tires on a regular basis. "We were out there for eight or ten days," O'Connor says. "It seemed longer."

The expedition was cut short when the tires ran out, but not before they discovered 12 trees with dendroglyphs. Archaeologists took thousands of overlapping photos to document the discoveries, capturing an image of every centimeter of each tree.

The survival of dendroglyphs like this one is linked to the survival of its host tree. Unlike other trees, boabs disintegrate quickly after death, leaving little trace of their presence. O'Connor, S.

Grinding stones and other tools were also discovered scattered around the base of the trees by the team. Given that large boabs provide shade in a desert with little cover, the prevalence of these objects suggests that people likely used the trees as resting spots as well as navigational markers while traveling across the desert, according to the researchers' study.

The carvings on the boabs included emu and kangaroo tracks. The vast majority of the engravings, however, were of snakes, some of which undulated across the bark and others coiled onto themselves. Garstone's and her family's knowledge, as well as historical records from the area, point to the carvings being associated with the King Brown Snake Dreaming.

"It was surreal," says Garstone. Seeing the dendroglyphs confirmed family stories and is "pure evidence" of her ancestors' connection to the land, she says. The rediscovery has been therapeutic, particularly for her mother and aunt, both of whom are now in their 70s. "All of this was almost lost because they didn't grow up with their families in their homeland," she says.

Maintaining the connection

The search for and documentation of carved boabs in the Tanami and other parts of the country has only recently begun. However, Smith believes that this initial foray demonstrates the "vital importance" of scientists collaborating with First Nations knowledge holders.

O'Connor is organizing another expedition to find the rest of the engravings discovered by Lewis, but this time she plans to use better wheels or, ideally, a helicopter. Garstone intends to bring more of her extended family with her.

Meanwhile, O'Connor claims that their work has sparked interest among researchers and other Aboriginal groups in rediscovering and preserving the lost art form for future generations.

"Our connection to country is critical to maintaining because it defines who we are as First Nations people," Garstone adds. "Knowing that we have a rich cultural heritage and having our own museum in the bush is something we will treasure for the rest of our lives."


Art in the bark: Indigenous carved boab trees (Adansonia gregorii) in north-west Australia, by S. O'Connor et al. Antiquity. 10.15184/aqy.2022.129, published online October 11, 2022.

A. Patrut et al. The extinction of Africa's largest and oldest baobabs.Nature Plants, June 2018, vol. 4, p. 423. doi: 10.1038/s41477-018-0170-5


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