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Carvings on Australia’s boab trees reveal a generation’s lost history

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Brenda Garstone is on the hunt for her heritage.

Parts of her cultural inheritance are scattered across the Tanami desert in northwestern Australia, where dozens of ancient boab trees are engraved with Aboriginal designs. These tree carvings — called dendroglyphs — could be hundreds or even thousands of years old, yet have received almost no attention 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 northwestern Australia — teamed up with archaeologists to find and document some of these carvings.

For Garstone, the expedition was a bid to piece back together the disparate parts of her identity. These pieces were scattered 70 years ago when Garstone’s mother and three siblings were among the estimated 100,000 Aboriginal children taken from their families by the Australian government. Like many others, the siblings were sent to live at a Christian mission thousands of kilometers from home. It would take decades of effort and a series of…

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