The lost Australian stories etched in iconic ancient trees

22 October 2020

A new cross-institutional research project from The University of Notre Dame Australia (UNDA), Australian National University (ANU), the University of Western Australia (UWA), and the University of Canberra (UC), with Acting Nulungu Manager and Research Fellow Melissa Marshall appointed as Chief Investigator, has been announced by the Australian Research Council.

There are few images as evocative of the Kimberley as a horizon broken up by the majestic dignity of boab trees. The swollen trunk of this distinctive plant hordes water jealously to survive the extensive droughts that can be so fatal for non-adapted flora in the outback.

With a lifespan of centuries (some individual boab trees are over 1,500 years old, making them amongst the oldest living beings in Australia), the tree lacks foliage for much of the year, before exploding with large, fragrant, organic sparklers of flowers. The local Aboriginal people have used the boab in multiple ways, as food, medicine, shelter, and even for creating intricate art work both on the boab nuts and the trunk of the tree itself, and it is the latter that interests this particular group of researchers.

These Australian boab trees record the stories of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the region, including from the time of the first European contact, that have not been captured in any other form.

Research leaders Dr Melissa Marshall (UNDA), Professor Sue O’Connor (ANU), Professor Jane Balme (UWA), and Dr Ursula Frederick (UC) will work with Aboriginal communities in the Kimberley to document and contextualise the tree carvings.

Professor O’Connor said the project will provide the first systematic archive of carved boab trees ever undertaken, using state-of-the-art technology to capture accurate 3D records of the markings.

“We know a lot about rock art in caves and shelters, but almost nothing about the carvings done on trees,” said Professor O’Connor from the ANU School of Culture, History and Language.

“Many of the carved trees are already many hundreds of years old and there is now some urgency to produce high-quality recordings before these remarkable heritage trees die.”

The local Aboriginal people have used boab trees in many ways, including as food, medicine, fibre shelter, and even for creating intricate artwork on the boab nuts and the trunk of the tree. Some boab trees are more than 1,500 years old, making them among the oldest living organisms in Australia.

“Boabs are still immensely important to Kimberley Aboriginal people as they act as markers of landscape and place, and they are popular camping spots,” Dr Marshall said.

The tree lacks foliage for much of the year, before blooming with large, fragrant, organic sparklers of flowers.

The team of archaeologists will survey three Kimberley study sites: an early Mission, a pastoral property and an Indigenous settlement.

“We will record both Indigenous and non-Indigenous carvings on boabs, to learn about this little-known traditional Indigenous cultural and artistic practice, and about the daily lives of people living on missions and pastoral properties prior to and immediately following European contact,” Professor O’Connor said.

The team will also examine unpublished manuscripts, diaries, letters, mission records, newspapers and published historical and anthropological literature for the Kimberley.

“This will allow us to contextualise the carvings we record and to compare our findings with those documented in other types of source material,” Professor O’Connor said.

Dr Frederick said: “The team will bring together a wealth of expertise, including local knowledge and state of the art photogrammetry and scanning techniques, to ensure that this significant living archive will have a digital presence for future generations to see.”

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