Jungle carvings in Australia reveal the lost history of a generation


Brenda Garston searches for her legacy.

Parts of its cultural heritage are spread across the Tanami Desert in northwestern Australia, where dozens of ancient boab trees are engraved with Aboriginal designs. These tree carvings—called dendroglyphs—may be hundreds or even thousands of years old, but they have received almost no attention from Western researchers.

This is slowly starting to change. In the winter of 2021, Garston—a Jarrow, an Aboriginal group from the Kimberley region in northwest Australia—collaborated with archaeologists to find and document some of these carvings.

For Garston, the campaign was an attempt to reassemble the disparate parts of her identity. The pieces were scattered about 70 years ago when Garston’s mother and three siblings were among an estimated 100,000 Indigenous children taken from their families by the Australian government. Like many others, the siblings were sent to live on a Christian mission thousands of kilometers from home. It will take decades of effort and a series of unconnected events–including the gift of an inheritance and a scholar’s quest to find out what happened to a missing 19th-century European naturalist–for the Garston family to regain their birthright.

Photo of Brenda Garston standing next to a janitor's tree snake engraving
Brenda Garston accompanied the research team on an expedition to find snail trees – and their carvings – in the Tanami Desert. This cage is only 5.5 meters in diameter, making it the smallest carved tree found during the expedition. S O’Connor

When the siblings returned home to their mother in their teens, their extended family gave Garston’s aunt, Ann Rivers, a kind of shallow dish, adorned with two glass trees, or a porter. Rivers, who was only two months old when she was expelled, was told that the trees were part of her mother’s dream, the cultural story that connected her and her family to the land.

Now, in a study published Oct. 11 in the Antiquityand researchers Accurate 12-headed description with dendroglyphs of the Tanami Desert having connections to the Garo culture. And just in time: the clock is ticking for these ancient engravings as their host trees succumb to the ravages of time, increasing pressure from livestock, and possibly climate change.

The race to document these inscriptions before it’s too late is not simply a matter of studying an ancient art form. It is also a matter of healing the wounds caused by policies intended to erase the link between the Garston family and the land.

“Finding evidence that connects us to Earth was amazing,” she says. “The puzzle we have been trying to piece together is now complete.”

remote archive

Australian boabs (Adansonia Gregory) pivotal to this project. Found in the northwest corner of Australia, this is a tree species easily recognizable by its massive trunks and famous bottle shape.

Anthropologists have been writing about trees carved with Aboriginal symbols in Australia since the early 20th century. These records indicate that people were constantly carving and cutting down some trees until at least the 1960s. But compared to other forms of Aboriginal art – eg Visually stunning paintings are also found in the area (SN: 2/5/20) — “There doesn’t seem to be broad public awareness of this art form,” says Moya Smith, curator of anthropology and archeology at the Western Australian Museum in Perth, who was not involved in the study.

Darrell Lewis has come across his share of sculpted cohorts. The historian and archaeologist has now worked at the University of New England in Adelaide in the Northern Territory for half a century. Lewis discovered engravings made by cattle drivers, World War II soldiers, and indigenous peoples. This eclectic bag of engravings is dubbed the Outback Archives – a physical testament to the people who made this rugged part of Australia their home.

In 2008, Lewis was searching the Tanami Desert for what he hoped would be his largest addition to the archive. He had heard rumors that a cattle rancher working in the area a century earlier had found a firearm hidden in a door marked with the letter “L.” A roughly cast brass plate of the firearm — later purchased by the National Museum of Australia — is stamped with the name of the famous German naturalist Ludwig Leichhardt, who disappeared in 1848 while traveling through Western Australia.

Tanami is generally outside the normal range of a door. So in 2007, Lewis rented a helicopter and cut through the desert in search of Tanami’s secret stash of steamers. Its overpasses revealed nearly 280 steamer horns and hundreds of smaller trees dotted across the desert.

“No one, not even the locals, really knew there were any regiments out there,” he recalled.

His 2008 road trip to find the elusive “L” came empty-handed. But the search turned up dozens of dendroglyphs marked with dendroglyphs.

In a report for the Australian National Museum, which hired him to research the “L” carving, Lewis recorded the location of these trees. This information remained untouched for years until one day it fell into the hands of Sue O’Connor, an archaeologist at the Australian National University in Canberra.

crumble into dust

In 2018, O’Connor was part of a group of archaeologists who were increasingly concerned about the survival of the Boabs. That year, scientists studying the baobab plant in Africa—a close relative of the baobabs—noted that some of the Older trees were dying at a surprisingly high ratelikely due to climate change (SN: 6/18/18).

The news worried O’Connor. Dendroglyphs are often inscribed on the largest and oldest gates. While no one knows exactly how old these trees are, researchers believe their lifespan can be compared to their African cousins, who can live up to 2,000 years.

When these long-lived trees die, they cause them to vanish. Unlike other trees, whose wood can be preserved for hundreds of years after death, sepals have a moist, fibrous inner layer that can quickly disintegrate. Lewis witnesses bombs exploding in the dust two years after they were struck by lightning.

“You would never know there was a tree,” he says.

It is unclear whether Australian birds are threatened by climate change. But the trees are under attack from cattle, which peel off the plush bark to gain access to the damp interior. “We put all of this together and thought we’d better try to locate some of the carvings because they probably won’t be there in a few years,” O’Connor says.

The Lewis report provided a good starting point for this work. So O’Connor reached out to the historian and suggested they collaborate.

Around the same time, Garston spent four years doing her own research on her family’s heritage. The long and tortuous search leads her to a small museum that happens to be run by one of Lewis’ friends. When Garston mentioned she was from Halls Creek—a town near where Lewis did his fieldwork in 2008—a curator told her about the carving cohorts.

“I was like, ‘What?’ This is part of our dreams! “

Portrait of Anne Rivers holding a long, shallow red dish with black trees painted on the roof
Anne Rivers, Brenda Garston’s aunt, carries a shallow dish called a kolamon, passed down to her from her extended family. The couches drawn on the plate were an early indication of the relationship between the dendroglyphs of Tanami and their cultural heritage.Jane Palm

Dreams are a Western term used to refer to the huge variety of stories that, among other things, tell of how spiritual beings shaped the landscape. Dream stories also impart knowledge and inform rules of behavior and social interaction.

Garston knew from oral history passed down by her family that her grandmother had connections to the Bottle Tree Dreaming, as evidenced by the trees painted on her aunt’s Coolamon. The Bottle Tree Dreaming is one of the more oriental manifestations of the Lingka Dreaming path (Lingka is the Jaru word for King Brown Snake). This path stretches for thousands of kilometers from the western coast of Australia to the neighboring Northern Territory, marking Lingka’s journey through the landscape and forming a by-road for people to travel across the country.

Eager to confirm that steamships were part of this dream, Garston, along with her mother, aunt, and a host of other family members, joined archaeologists on their mission to rediscover the portals.

in Tanami

One winter day in 2021, the group sets out from the town of Halls Creek and sets up camp at a remote pastoral station inhabited mainly by wild cattle and camels. Each day, the team would climb into four-wheel-drive vehicles and head to the last known location of the excavated vulture.

It was hard work. The crew would often travel for hours to the supposed position of the mufarej, only to have to stand on top of the vehicles and look for trees in the distance. Moreover, the wooden stakes protruding from the ground constantly shred the tires of the vehicles. “We were there for eight or 10 days,” O’Connor says. “I felt long. “

The expedition is cut short when they run out of tires – but not before 12 trees with dendroglyphs are found. To document the finds, archaeologists took thousands of overlapping photos, capturing every centimeter of each tree.

An image of the lower section of an ancient tree with some inscriptions appearing on it
The preservation of dendroglyphs such as the one seen here is linked to the survival of their host tree. Unlike other trees, the buds quickly disintegrate after death, leaving behind little evidence of their existence. S O’Connor

The team also spotted grinding stones and other tools scattered around the base of the trees. Given that large cups provide shade in the low-cover desert, the prevalence of these objects indicates that people may have used the trees as resting sites as well as navigational markers while traveling through the desert, the researchers report in their study.

Some of the carvings on the gates were of emu and kangaroo tracks. But the vast majority of the engravings were of snakes, some rippling through the bark while others curled up on themselves. Knowledge provided by Garstone and her family, along with historical records from the area, point to the carvings being linked to King Brown Snake Dreaming.

“It was surreal,” says Garston. She says seeing the bifurcations confirmed the stories that were passed down in her family and is “pure evidence” of the ancestral connection to the country. Rediscovery was healing, especially for her mother and aunt, both of whom are in their 70s. “Almost all of this is lost because they didn’t grow up at home with their families,” she says.

Maintain contact

Work is just beginning to find and document carved steamers in Tanami and in other parts of the country. But this initial experience reveals the “vital importance” of scientists working in collaboration with First Nations knowledge holders, says Smith.

O’Connor organizes another expedition to find the rest of the petroglyphs spotted by Lewis, though she intends to take better wheels or – ideally – a helicopter. Garston plans to accompany more members of her extended family.

Meanwhile, O’Connor says their work appears to have sparked interest from researchers and other indigenous groups to rediscover the lost art form and preserve it for future generations.

Garston adds, “Our relationship with the state is very important to maintain because it makes us who we are as First Nations people.” “Knowing that we have such a rich cultural heritage and having our own museum in the bush is something we will cherish forever.”


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