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

By | November 20, 2022

Freda Kreier writes:

Brenda Garstone is on the hunt for her heritage.

Parts of her cultural inheritance are scattered across the Tanami desert in northwestern Australia, where dozens of ancient boab trees are engraved with Aboriginal designs. These tree carvings — called dendroglyphs — could be hundreds or even thousands of years old, yet have received almost no attention from western researchers.

That is slowly starting to change. In the winter of 2021, Garstone — who is Jaru, an Aboriginal group from the Kimberley region of northwestern Australia — teamed up with archaeologists to find and document some of these carvings.

For Garstone, the expedition was a bid to piece back together the disparate parts of her identity. These pieces were scattered 70 years ago when Garstone’s mother and three siblings were among the estimated 100,000 Aboriginal children taken from their families by the Australian government. Like many others, the siblings were sent to live at a Christian mission thousands of kilometers from home. It would take decades of effort and a series of unconnected events — including the gift of an heirloom and a researcher’s quest to find out what happened to a missing 19th century European naturalist — for Garstone’s family to reclaim its birthright.

When the siblings returned to their mother’s homeland as teenagers, their extended family gave Garstone’s aunt, Anne Rivers, a coolamon, a type of shallow dish, decorated with two bottle trees, or boabs. Rivers, who was only 2 months old when she was sent away, was told that the trees were a part of her mother’s Dreaming, the cultural story that connected her and her family to the land.

Now, in a study published October 11 in Antiquity, researchers have meticulously described 12 boabs with dendroglyphs in the Tanami desert that have links to Jaru culture. And just in time: The clock is ticking for these ancient engravings as their host trees succumb to the ravages of time and growing pressure from livestock and possibly climate change. [Continue reading…]

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