Dating Aboriginal Scarred Trees in north eastern Australia

This week and next I’m back in Weipa (NE Australia) working on a research project with Alngith People — Traditional Owners of the western Weipa Peninsula — as well as Dr Kathryn Allen (Monash University), to collect cores from Aboriginal scarred trees in the region.  The work we’re doing involves applying dendrochronology, dendroecology and radiocarbon dating techniques to date Aboriginal scarred trees, understand growth rates on a particular species of tree and to collect new data about environmental change in the region over the past few centuries.  In this post I want to outline the context and primary focus of the project, with another to follow on the methods and approaches we’re using as well as some secondary issues that we’re exploring.

What are scarred trees?

‘Scarred trees’ are simply trees that have some evidence of scarring as a result of people in the past removing bark or wood, engraving designs or motifs or cutting into trees for various reasons, including to collect food. In Australia, scarred trees have typically been created by Indigenous peoples. South eastern Australia is well known for the often large and imposing canoe scars carefully carved into the trunks of majestic river gums, and which are a common sight near waterways and wetlands. However, it is less well known that scarred trees are found in many parts of Australia and indeed, in many other parts of the world including in North America and Europe.

Scarred trees are a physical reminder of how Indigenous peoples in the past lived and are often of high importance to Indigenous communities in Australia today: they provide a link to the past and are generally a type of heritage place that communities try to preserve and protect where possible. Scarred trees are highly vulnerable to destruction via natural decay and fire while development is also a major threat as mining, urban expansion and so on see widespread clearance of otherwise undisturbed areas of forest and woodland across the country. This is particularly the case in western Cape York Peninsula where mining has considerable impacts on the local environment and where the foreseeable future is one that is dominated by ongoing mine expansion.

Scarred trees on Western Cape York

Many thousands of scarred trees occur on Aboriginal lands around Weipa, with well over 1,500 recorded on the Weipa Peninsula alone (1, 2). They are regularly found by archaeologists and Traditional Owners completing assessments before mining clearances and are frequently cut down and moved to make way for mining development. In the past few years, some Traditional Owners have chosen scarred trees of special importance and have placed these into monuments in the local area, in part to prevent them from being destroyed by mining (3).

Scarred tree monument at Ruchook Cultural Ground, Weipa

According to local Elders, there are several different types of scar tree. Some scars were created by people cutting timber to make spear throwers or woomera as well as other  tools (4). The scar tree that is most commonly found in the Weipa area are ‘sugarbag’ scars which were created by people cutting into trees to collect the honey and wax of the stingless native bees. In the early days, a stone axe was used to create a small hole near a sugarbag hive and then a thin, spongy branch was inserted into this hole to soak up the honey. These holes would then be sealed up again so that people could come back at a later time to collect more of the honey or wax. We’ve recently suggested that this approach was a form of resource management or ‘domiculture’, or a set of economic practices and ethics that were — and still are — a major feature of Aboriginal cultural traditions in the region (5).

In the late 1800s Europeans bought iron hatchets and axes and these were also used in the collection of sugarbag right through the 1900s. Indeed, Napranum Elders who grew up in the Weipa Mission remember their parents collecting honey and exchanging this with the Missionaries who would place it into a tank beneath the Mission Superintendent’s house. It was mixed with water as a cordial-like drink, and was eaten on porridge and damper every day. Sugarbag is still collected regularly by local community members today, using similar methods to those used by their parents and grandparents.

How old are scar trees?

On western Cape York Peninsula, scars mostly occur on one species of tree — the Cooktown ironwood — which as the name suggests is a tree whose timber is extremely dense and hard and is well known to be quite difficult to cut. This tree is also quite slow growing, with one study suggesting that a tree that was about 35 cm in diameter at chest height had taken between 180 and 300 years to grow, with growth rates of about 0.12 cm each year (6). What this means is that average sized ironwoods are likely to be at least several hundred years old and that the very large trees with 60 cm or more in diameter may in fact be much older than we had previously thought. Scars have been recorded on ironwoods of all shapes and sizes, and even found on ironwoods that have long since died, so  it is likely that some scarred trees date to the period before Europeans arrived in the region.

There have been no previous attempts to discover the age of scarred trees in the region and only one other study in Australia that has attempted to do so (7), though this was highly destructive and required that the tree be felled — which is not always an option when it comes to managing Indigenous heritage sites.

The presence or absence of iron axe marks does give us a general estimate of the age of a scar and it is likely that scars with sharp and distinct axe marks were made after the late 1880s. However, many scars do not have clear axe marks suggesting they might be older than this. The techniques we are using potentially allow us to place scarring events into a 5-10 year time bracket allowing both community members and us to place specific trees into a particular historical context.

There are a number of reasons we are interested in developing a technique to effectively date scarred trees:

  1. Having information about the probable age of a scarred tree will help to better manage these sites when difficult decisions about development are being made. For example, Traditional Owners may wish to manage scarred trees made in the 1960s, 1920s or 1850s in very different ways.
  2. It will provide historical information that can feed into a range of community heritage work including educational and interpretive projects.
  3. It will contribute to more academic research questions about the history of the region, particularly in terms of understanding what life was like for Indigenous people between the early 1800s and the mid 1900s and the ways in which the arrival of settler-invaders influenced Indigenous wellbeing.

So, this week we’re trying to relocate scarred trees on Alngith Country that have been recorded over the past 8-10 years. Next week, we’ll be selecting those trees that Alngith People want to core. Over the coming week I’ll post more information on the method we’re using and some images and video from the field.

Further reading:

I’m yet to upload my own publications here but if you are looking for a copy of something I’ve written just contact me and I’ll send it to you via express carrier pigeon.

1) Morrison, M.J., D.A. McNaughton and J. Shiner 2010 Mission-Based Indigenous Production at the Weipa Presbyterian Mission, Western Cape York Peninsula (1932–66). International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 14(1), pp.86–111.

2) Shiner, J. and M.J. Morrison. 2009 The contribution of heritage surveys towards understanding the cultural landscape of the Weipa bauxite plateau. Australian Archaeology, 68, pp.52–55.

3) Barkley, R. et al. 2008 Collaboration and innovation in the management of cultural landscapes in mining contexts, western Cape York, far north Queensland. Historic Environment, 21(3).

4) Morrison, M.J. et al. 2012 New approaches to the archaeological investigation of culturally modified trees: a case study from western Cape York Peninsula. Journal of the Anthropological Society of South Australia, 35, pp.17–51.

5) Morrison, M.J. and Shepard, E. [Forthcoming] The archaeology of “sugarbag” production: post-contact Indigenous economic diversification within colonial intercultural settings in Cape York Peninsula, north eastern Australia. Journal of Field Archaeology.

6) Cook, A.D. et al. 2005 Sustainable harvest rates of ironwood, Erythrophleum chlorostachys, in the Northern Territory, Australia. Australian Journal of Botany, 53, pp.821–826.

7) Long, A. et al. 2002 The origin and date of two scarred trees at Horsham Saleyards, Horsham, Western Victoria. A report to Horsham Rural City Council and Goolum Goolum Aboriginal Cooperative, Horsham.