Brenda Garstone’s legacy is on the hunt.
Parts of its cultural heritage are scattered across the Tanami Desert in northern Australia, where dozens of ancient boab trees are dotted with archetypes. These tree carvings, called dendroglyphs, could be hundreds or even thousands of years old, yet they have received almost no notice 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 northern Australia — worked with archaeologists to find and document some of the carvings.
At Garstone the campaign was ordered to bring the different parts of his identity back together. These groups were dispersed 70 years ago when Garstone’s mother and three siblings were among an estimated 100,000 Aboriginal children taken from families by the Australian government. Like many others, the siblings were sent to a Christian mission thousands of kilometers from their home. It would take decades and a series of disjointed events — including a gift from an heir and an investigator’s quest to find out what happened to a 19th-century European naturalist about whom the Garstone family claimed primogeniture.
When the siblings returned to their mother’s country as teenagers, their family member Garstone gave their aunt Anna Rivera a coolamon, a type of dish, decorated with two bowls or bowls. Rivers, who was only 2 months old, was told that the trees were part of her mother’s dream, a cultural history that connected her and her family to the land.
Already published in the study 11 Oct Antiquity, researchers have carefully documented 12 boas with dendroglyphs in the Tanami desert that have links to the Jaru culture. And just in time: A clock is useful for these ancient sculptures as the host trees succumb to their times and the pressure of growing livestock and perhaps climate change.
The race to document these sculptures before it’s too late isn’t just in terms of researching ancient art forms. It also heals the wounds from plans to destroy the connection between the Garstone family and the land.
“To find evidence that tied us to the ground was amazing,” he said. “The puzzle we had to try together is now complete.”
An outback archive
Australian boabs (Adansonia gregorius) This document has been proven to be pivotal. Found in the northern corner of Australia, boabs are a species of tree easily recognizable by their massive trunks and iconic shape.
Anthropologists have written about the existence of trees as archetypal symbols carved in Australia since the early 1900s. These records indicate that people continued to carve trees and repair some trees until at least the 1960s. But when compared to other forms of aboriginal art – such as the visually spectacular paintings also found in the area (SN: 2/5/20) — “There doesn’t seem to be a widespread general 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 found a part in his carvings. The historian and archaeologist has now worked at the University of New England in Adelaide in the Northern Territory for half a century. Louis spotted carvings of herds of cattle, World War II soldiers and Aboriginal peoples. He calls this eclectic bag an inscribed “Archive of the Outback” – a physical testament to the people who made this rugged part of Australia their home.
In 2008, Lewis was looking for the Tanami Desert for what he hoped would be the biggest addition to the archive. He had heard rumors that a cattle driver in the area a century ago had found a gun on a board with the letter “L.” The brass plate, almost shot from a firearm – later purchased by the National Museum of Australia – is marked with the name of the famous German naturalist Ludwig Leichhardt, who disappeared in 1848 while traveling through Western Australia.
Tanami are generally thought to be outside the boab’s natural range. So in 2007, Lewis hired a helicopter and crisscrossed the desert in search of Tanami’s hidden boa constrictors. His flight revealed about 280 old cattle and hundreds of young trees scattered across the desert.
“No one, not even the locals, knew that any ships were there,” he recalls.
His 2008 ground campaign to find the elusive “L” went up. But research has uncovered dozens of oxen marked with dendroglyphs.
In a report about the National Museum of Australia, which had hired him to search for the carved “L”, Lewis mentioned the location of these trees. That information sat untouched for years until one day, it fell into the hands of Sue O’Connor, an archaeologist at the Australian National University in Canberra.
He sinks into the dust
In 2018, O’Connor was part of a group of archaeologists who were increasingly concerned about the safety of the boa constrictor. That year, scientists discovered that some of the baobabs in Africa—a relative of the boa constrictor—had become extinct, potentially due to climate change.SN: 6/18/18).
The report horrified O’Connor. Dendroglyphs are often carved into the largest and oldest beavers. While no one knows exactly how many years these trees can live, researchers suspect their lifespans are comparable to their African cousins, which can live up to two thousand years.
When these long-lived trees die, they get the act of disappearing. Unlike other trees, the wood of which can be preserved for hundreds of years after death, boabs have a moist and fibrous interior that quickly decomposes. Lewis witnessed the boabs collapse after two years in dust from the sky.
“You’d never know the wood was there,” he said.
Whether Australian boabs are threatened by climate change is uncertain. But the trees are attacked by the cattle, which the barks of the cattle reach to the damp interior. “We did all this together and we thought we’d better try and put some sculptures away because maybe they won’t be there in a few years,” O’Connor said.
Louis’ fame provided a good jumping-off point for this work. So O’Connor reached out to the historian and began to work.
Around the same time Garstone was four years into his own research into his family heritage. A long and winding search led her to a small museum that a friend of Lewis’ happened to run. When Garstone mentioned that she was from Hallis Creek – near the town where Lewis made his land in 2008 – the curator told him about the carving of the boas.
“I was like, What? It’s part of our Dream!” mentions
The dreams of the western frontier are to be referred to an immense diversity of stories, which – among other things – mention how spiritual characteristics have shaped the field. Dreaming stories also convey knowledge and inform rules of behavior and behavior.
Garstone knew from an oral history passed down through her family that her grandmother was tied to the Bottle Tree Dream, as indicated by the trees painted on her aunt’s coolamon. The Dreaming Bottle Tree is one of the eastern-most manifestations of the Dreaming Lingka (Lingka is the Jaru word for King Brown Snake). This road runs 1,000 kilometers from the west coast of Australia and along the border of the Northern Territory, taking the Lingka route through the landscape and making a way for people to travel across the country.
Eager to confirm that the shoulder blades were part of this dream, Garstone, along with his mother, aunt and several other family members, joined their archaeologists on a mission to find the shoulder blades.
On a winter day in 2021, the group set out from the town of Halls Creek and set up camp at a remote pastoral station populated mostly by wild cattle and camels. Each day, the team climbs into all-wheel drive vehicles and heads to the last known location of the beaver carvings.
It was hard work. The crew often drove for hours to the ship’s supposed position, only to stand on top of the vehicles and survey the trees in the distance. Moreover, the tires sticking out of the ground constantly broke the vehicles. We were there for eight or 10 days, says O’Connor. “He didn’t feel it” already “.
The campaign is cut short with the missing crown, but not before finding 12 trees with dendroglyphs. To document the finds, archaeologists took thousands of overlapping pictures, capturing a centimeter image of each tree.
The team also spotted grinding stones and other tools scattered around the base of the trees. While large boats provide little shelter in the desert, the abundance of these objects suggests that people likely used trees as resting areas and navigational features while traveling through the desert, the researchers report in their study.
Some of the carvings on the boa constrictor were emu and prejudiced. and there were many sculptures of serpents, some of which undulated through the bark, others coiled in themselves. The information provided by Garstone and his family, along with historical records from the area, connected the dots to the sculptures with the King Brown Snake Dreaming.
“Surreal,” Garstone said. Seeing the dendroglyphs confirmed the stories passed down in his family and says that they are “pure evidence” of the nation’s kinship to the country. The discovery was healing, especially for the mother and aunt, both now in their 70s. “They almost lost all of this because they didn’t grow up in the country with their families,” he said.
Keeping in touch
The work to find and engrave the document has already begun in Tanami and other parts of the country. But this initial battle reveals the “vital moment” of scientists working in collaboration with First Nations knowledge holders, says Cicero.
O’Connor plans another expedition to find the rest of the carvings that Louis spotted, though he intends to get better wheels or a helicopter — ideally — a helicopter. Garstone plans to come with more of his extended family in tow.
Meanwhile, O’Connor says her work has spurred interest among researchers and other aboriginal groups in uncovering the lost art form and preserving it for posterity.
“It’s so important to maintain our connection to the land that makes us who we are as First Nations people,” adds Garstone. “To know that we have a rich cultural heritage and to have our own museum in the bush is something that we will treasure forever.”
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