Archaeologists and historians from the Australian National University, the University of Western Australia and the University of Canberra recently teamed up with a group of Australian First Nations cultural historians to undertake a unique expedition recording art ancient carved in boabs. Their goal was to find and document the existence of carved artwork on the surface of boabs in the arid Tanami Desert in northwest Australia, a rarely visited section of the vast continent. The ancient artists were the ancestors of today’s First Nations peoples. There was a sense of urgency in this mission, as many of the oldest boabs in this region may be nearing the end of their long lives.
“Unlike most Australian trees, the inner wood of boabs is soft and fibrous and when the trees die they simply crumble,” explained Australian National University archaeologist Sue O’Connor, lead author of ‘a report on the expedition published by antiquity. “Sadly, after lasting for centuries, if not millennia, this incredible work of art, which is just as important as the rock art for which Indigenous Australians are famous, is now in danger of disappearing.”
Fortunately, the boab artwork shipment was a success. During an extensive search, the team found a dozen boab trees that featured this type or unique artwork, which appears to include images of the King Brown Snake, a mythological version of a real snake that is common in Western Australia.
Brenda Garstone, First Nations member and expedition participant, stressed the importance of preserving and protecting Indigenous artworks and the stories they tell, so that traditional wisdom is not inaccessible to younger generations. “We are in a race against time to document this priceless cultural heritage,” Garstone explained.
Traditional owner Brenda Garstone at the smallest of the carved boabs recorded in Australia’s northern Tanami Desert. (S. O’Connor / Antiquity Publications Ltd )
Hunt for boab carvings in the Tanami Desert
Fieldwork on this discovery project began in June 2021. To prepare for their research, archaeologists marked out an area of approximately 62 square miles (160 km2) in a treeless, sun-dried region that borders the western of Australia on one side and the remote Northern Territory on the other.
The team entered this ominous desert area seeking to take high-resolution photos of every boab they could find. They paid particular attention to those that might feature ancient carvings known as dendroglyphs.
Previous explorations in the 1990s had indicated the presence of such trees in the Tanami Desert. At the time, however, not all of these trees were photographed and their exact location was not noted. The new research project aimed to verify these ancient sightings, while creating a more detailed visual record and map of the still-existing boabs and their dendroglyphs.
During this extensive investigation, researchers found 12 boabs that included carvings of distinctive pictographs. The most common image to appear in these carvings was that of snakes, followed in frequency by designs of emus and kangaroo footprints.
Some of the snake images were coiled while others were extended, representing movement. Abstract geometric shapes were also present in the image collection, as were images of what may have been intended to represent gods in animal form.
a) Enlargement of a snake sculpture, showing damaged areas on the bark by insect larvae; b) location of the carving on the boab tree shown in a); c) partially collapsed boab, with elaborate snake carvings on the trunk and lower branches; and d) Darrell Lewis seated next to a low branch with deeply carved snakes. (Photographs a–c by S. O’Connor; d) by D. Lewis / Antiquity Publications Ltd )
Using Boab Trees as a storyboard
Taken together, the dendroglyphs tell the story of the mythical King Brown Snake and his travels in the Tanami Desert region. His path would have been considered sacred and could have been followed by First Nations hunter-gatherers seeking to survive in a hostile landscape.
Although the First Nations members of the research team know the mythological traditions of their people, even they have no way of telling for sure when the images were carved. “They [boab trees] They are often said to live up to 2,000 years, but this is based on ages obtained from some of the massive baobabs in South Africa which are a different species,” Prof O’Connor said.
“We just don’t know how old Australian boabs are,” O’Connor pointed out. Without this knowledge, she confirmed that it would be impossible to precisely date the dendroglyphs to a specific time in history. This is a problem they hope to eventually solve. “It is essential that we obtain direct ages for these remarkable Australian trees, which help tell the story of First Nations Australians and are the source of a rich cultural heritage.”
a) Open-mouthed snake and emu track (right), northern Tanami Desert. The boab sculpture measures approximately 1.2m in diameter; b) boab with coiled and elongated snake carvings, northern Tanami Desert (D. Lewis/ Antiquity Publications Ltd ).
Boabs are essential for survival in the desert
The Australian boab shares a common ancestor with the African baobab. It would not have evolved on the mainland naturally, but arrived in prehistoric times when its pods washed ashore after crossing the ocean from the west.
Boabs are extraordinary due to their massive size and thickness, large egg-shaped pods, and incredible longevity. These bottle-shaped trees grow surprisingly well in the desert environments of the Northern Territory, which is one of only two places where they can be found. The boab has also taken hold in the rugged and mountainous region of Kimberley, also located in northwestern Australia, a few hundred kilometers west of the Tanami Desert.
The boab functioned as a vital source of nutrition for the First Nations peoples of Australia. Its roots, seeds, and pith are all edible, and the trees would have served as a vital food source in desert conditions where other edible plants were scarce.
Standing like solitary sentinels on vast treeless plains, lone boabs are said to have been used as a source of shade by indigenous peoples traveling through or living in the scorching Tanami Desert. These massive trees would also have been very useful for mapping purposes – as distinctive and easily spotted objects on an open landscape, they would have helped ancient travelers navigate through otherwise featureless desert territory.
Given how addicted the ancients were to large, visually striking boabs, it’s no surprise that they came to regard them as sacred. Providing a smooth, durable surface for artwork and image-based storytelling, boabs functioned as intergenerational canvases for ancient indigenous artists and myth-makers who wanted their works preserved in order to be seen. and understood by their descendants.
a) Anne Rivers, traditional owner, holding a coolamon painted with boabs; and b) enlargement of painted coolamon (J. Balme / Antiquity Publications Ltd ).
Deciphering the stories of the creators
In 2018, a group of First Nations scholars published photographs of several ancient carvings found on boabs growing in the western Kimberley region. In their analysis of this aboriginal artwork they emphasized the spiritual nature of this imagery.
“These engravings are interpreted from the perspective of a larger ontology, in which the images are part of interconnected narratives describing the actions of wanjinas and other creative beings who have shaped the landscape,” Professor O’Connor and his co-authors wrote in antiquityexplaining the larger context in which their findings in the Tanami Desert can be interpreted.
Much has already been learned about the ancient Aboriginal artwork carved into boabs and the beliefs of the ancestors of modern First Nations peoples in Australia. But there is still much to discover. “There are hundreds more boabs visible on Google Earth, which we failed to reach on this trip,” Prof O’Connor said. “Still to check for carvings on our next Tanami adventure.”
Top image: Large boab with coiled snake carving, northern Tanami Desert. Source: Darrell Lewis / Antiquity Publications Ltd
By Nathan Falde