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Recording the stories carved in ancient boab trees

Recording the stories carved in ancient boab trees

One of the iconic boab trees with a carving in the Kimberley, WA.  Credit: Jane Balme

Research leaders from four Australian universities, supported through one of the first ARC Special Research Initiative for Australian Society, History and Culture grants, are working with Aboriginal communities in the Kimberley to develop the first ever systematic archive of carved boab trees.

Australian boab trees record the stories of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the region, including from the time of the first European contact. The project will create the archive using state-of-the-art technology to capture accurate 3D records of the markings.

With a lifespan of centuries (some individuals are over 1,500 years old, making them amongst the oldest living trees in Australia), the boab lacks foliage for much of the year, becoming dormant in the winter dry season, before its large fragrant flowers emerge and open in the spring evenings.

Local Aboriginal people have used the boab in multiple ways, as food, medicine, shelter, and even for creating intricate artwork both on the boab nuts and the trunk of the tree itself, and it is the latter that interests this group of researchers.

The research team – Dr Melissa Marshall (University of Notre Dame Australia), Professor Sue O’Connor (The Australian National University), Professor Jane Balme (The University of Western Australia), and Dr Ursula Frederick (University of Canberra) – bring together a wide breadth of expertise, including local knowledge and the latest photogrammetry and scanning techniques.

The researchers are recording both Indigenous and non-Indigenous carvings on the boab trees, to learn about the little-known traditional Indigenous cultural and artistic practice, as well as piece together more information about the daily lives of people living on missions and pastoral properties prior to and immediately following European contact.

The team is also examining unpublished manuscripts, diaries, letters, mission records, newspapers and published historical and anthropological literature for the Kimberley, to contextualise the carvings as they are recorded. The final outcomes will be made available digitally, for future generations to see.


Many of the carved trees are already hundreds of years old, increasing the urgency of capturing high-quality recordings before these remarkable heritage trees die.

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