THE AUSTRALIAN BOAB TREE

Bangkok, 11 June 2016

One of the first things which struck me as my wife and I started our tour of the Kimberley in Australia was the presence of this tree, which we frequently saw, both in leaf
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and bare
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and many of them with fruit.

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I kept saying, “Aren’t those baobab trees?” For they looked amazingly like African baobabs.
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Well, the fact is, they are baobabs (although Australians insist on calling them boabs). These trees are to be found in sub-Saharan Africa (two species) as well as in Madagascar (six species, of which these, subjects of a previous post of mine, are magnificent specimens)
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and there is this one species in Australia – actually, the tree is found only in the Kimberley and nowhere else in Australia.

How did the baobab tree end up in the Kimberley? I mean, it’s quite some distance, some 8,000 km to be precise, between the east coast of Africa and the west coast of Australia.

A first hypothesis was that this was a left-over from the break-up hundreds of millions of years ago of the supercontinent Gondwana into its constituent pieces of South America, Africa and Madagascar, Antarctica, India, and Australia
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which then proceeded, through continental drift, to arrive where they are now. The ancestors of the baobab had existed on Gondwana, so the thinking went, and were carried along for the ride on the drifting continents.

Apart from the fact that this hypothesis doesn’t explain why there aren’t baobabs in India or South America, modern DNA analysis has nixed it. Comparison of DNAs has shown that the African and Australian varieties of the baobab separated a “mere” 100,000 years or so ago, when (by my calculation) Africa and Australia were 7 km closer (continental plates drift slowly).

So how did the baobab make it to Australia?

Well, the next most obvious hypothesis is that an African baobab nut or two (of which the smiling ladies in the photo above are holding a basketful) was carried out to sea and then carried along by surface currents to its new home in Northwestern Australia. But the experts are hesitant, and I understand why. A study of this map of surface currents
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shows that to make it to the Kimberley region, a nut would have had to fall into the Somali current and been carried northward, then it would have had to get taken eastward by the northern branch of the Indian Ocean’s Equatorial current, all the way to the island of Sumatra. At that point, our bobbing baobab nut would have had to hug the southern coastlines of Sumatra and Java, to then, somewhere around Bali or Timor, change course, coming southward and westward, finally making a landing in the Kimberley. As the sad fate of the Malaysian flight MH370 has shown, anything floating further south in the Indian Ocean would tend to be carried westward rather than eastward. The map below is a computer-generated estimate of where debris of the plane could have drifted from the original hypothesized crash point (the square point on the border of the blue area); the red area is where debris might have been 18 to 24 months after the crash.
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If this ocean voyage of the baobab nut occurred at all, it would have taken place during the last ice age. This started 110,000 years ago, which is pretty much when the two baobab lines separated, and finished 12,000 years ago. Among other things, the ice age caused sea levels to drop, which modified coastlines in certain parts of the world. In turn, these modifications could have affected the direction of surface currents. So to be really correct, one should look at a map of someone’s best guess of surface ocean currents during the ice age. Unfortunately, I didn’t come across any such map. This map, however, shows where the coastlines were at the time.

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It seems there were no big changes in the area we’re interested in except around the islands of Indonesia and New Guinea, where the lower sea levels connected up a lot of the islands (and, en passant, made that last hop of human beings into Australia 50,000 or so years ago a good deal easier). I’m no ocean currentologist, but I rather think that the blocking up of the straits between these islands might actually have made the last leg of the baobab nut’s journey, that right turn from Bali to Australia, somewhat easier.

How long would such a trip have taken? Well, it took debris from MH370 about two years to wash up on the coast of Mozambique, so I would imagine that it would take just as long, if not longer, for a baobab nut to travel in the opposite direction. Could a baobab nut soak that long in the ocean and still be able to germinate upon arrival? We can look to the coconut for an answer; a coconut, at least the original version before human beings started messing around with it, was designed to be dispersed by sea.
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There happens to be a lot of argument on this point, but no-one has ever claimed that a coconut can last two years in seawater. A maximum seems about three months, and even that has been challenged. So I seriously doubt that a baobab nut, even if it had managed to make it to the Kimberley by sea, would have been in a fit state to germinate.

So, how else could the baobab have arrived in the Kimberley?

The next most obvious hypothesis is that human beings brought the baobab with them, because they too originated in Africa. Could the ancestors of the Aboriginal people, who are currently thought to have arrived in Australia 50,000 years ago (plus or minus 10,000 years), have carried the baobab nut with them? Well, since they left Africa about 120,000 years ago and took 70,000 years to reach Australia, that would have meant planting the baobab as they went along. This is not actually as crazy as it sounds. Both in Africa and in the Kimberley there is strong evidence that the local hunter-gathering groups deliberately carried the baobab with them and planted it in new areas – the tree is a great source of many things other than the nut. But if this really did happen, then shouldn’t we find baobabs along their most probable migration route?
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Yet, apart from southern Arabia, none of the places between Africa and Australia have baobabs, or even baobab remains. Of course, it could be that climate changes in these places after the end of the ice age killed off the baobabs, or it could be that they were killed off by the after-effects of the absolutely gigantic volcanic eruption of Mount Toba in the island of Sumatra about 70,000 years ago
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the ash from which fell over a huge area, much of it on the migration route to Australia, which could have choked plant life.
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It has also been argued that many years of permanent darkness set in after this event, a sort of “nuclear winter”, which of course would have affected the ability of plants to photosynthesize.

But still, all in all, the chances of the baobab having gotten to Australia via this long, long migration route seem very slim.

So how, then, could the baobab have gotten to the Kimberley?

And here, gentle readers, we step into a wasps’ nest. One Australian scientist has made the radical suggestion that tribes sailed from the east coast of Africa to the Kimberley, carrying baobab nuts as food. He claims that the rock art of the Kimberley (which I will cover in a future post) is (a) far older than is generally thought, maybe 50,000 years old, and (b) shows that 50,000 years ago the painters knew the use of boats.

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He suggests that the nuclear winter caused by Mount Toba led them to sail east, to the source of the sun, to find it again, which coincidentally would have brought them to the Kimberley (and he argues that there are strong connections between Kimberley’s rock art and the rock art of East Africa).

Well, as readers can imagine, such views have the Australian archaeological community in a tizzy. It certainly is a pretty far fetched theory. But somehow we have to explain how the baobabs got to the Kimberley, right? Anyone of my readers have any ideas?

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Boab tree in leaf: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adansonia_gregorii
Boab tree bare: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/boab-tree-kimberly.html
Boab tree in fruit: http://www.visualphotos.com/image/1×10636003/australia-western-australia-broome-roebuck-bay-a-faint-banded-sea-snake-caught-on-the-mud-flats-at-low-tide
African baobab tree: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/11328252/Baobab-the-superfood-of-2015.html
Grove of baobab trees, Madagascar: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/1618549836269760/
Gondwana: http://www.earthsciences.hku.hk/shmuseum/earth_evo_07_01.php
Ocean surface currents: http://www.cruiserswiki.org/wiki/Indian_Ocean
Debris path of MH 370: http://www.deepseanews.com/2015/07/how-currents-pushed-debris-from-the-missing-malaysian-air-flight-across-the-indian-ocean-to-reunion/
Coastlines last ice age: http://maxworldhistory.weebly.com/map-exercise.html
Coconut in the sea: http://www.allposters.com/-sp/Coconut-Floating-on-Water-Indo-Pacific-Split-Level-Dispersal-of-Seed-Posters_i2634256_.htm
Migration out of Africa: http://cogweb.ucla.edu/ep/Paleoanthropology.html
Mount Toba eruption: http://www.thedailysheeple.com/yellowstone-super-volcano-is-far-bigger-than-previously-thought_122013
Mount Toba ash coverage: http://news.berkeley.edu/2015/03/31/200th-anniversary-of-tambora-eruption-a-reminder-of-volcanic-perils/
Bradshaw art boat: http://forum.woodenboat.com/showthread.php?169983-Primitive-Depictions-of-Medieval-Ships-Seen-from-Above

OUR TOUR OF THE KIMBERLEY, AUSTRALIA

Bangkok, 5 June 2016

I must excuse myself to my readers for the long gap in my posts, but my wife and I have just come back from a two-week holiday. We were visiting the Kimberley region in Australia, which for those not familiar with Australian geography is the region tucked away into the continent’s northwest corner.

It’s Australian outback country par excellence: a poor, red, stony earth with rocky outcrops, lightly covered by a varying mix of grasses and eucalypts

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and dotted, sometimes thickly, with termite mounds
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sparsely populated, with huge cattle stations whose cattle is almost wild
Young Brahman cattle enjoy the lush grasslands in the Kimberley wet season.
and small, nondescript towns
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with significant Aboriginal populations.

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We chose to go with an organized tour, and so we found ourselves, the rather exotic foreigners, traveling with 22 Australians and a New Zealander (I don’t think New Zealanders really count as foreigners in Australia). It was a fascinating mix of people. Nearly all of them were from Australia’s east coast, escaping their “cold” winter. Most of them were retirees; at 62, we were among the youngest (there were two outliers, girls in their early twenties – we all stared at them in surprise when they first got on the coach; what on earth were they doing with us old fogies?). Two couples had been dairy farmers, a number had been teachers, a number had been social workers of one form or another, one had worked in the prison system, one had been an architect and another a house builder, one had been a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Finance, one of the young girls drove coal trucks out of a coal mine while studying part-time to be a nurse, the other was a receptionist. As behoves an immigrant country, several of our group were first-generation immigrants: there was a woman who hailed originally from Malaysia, another from France, a couple from the Netherlands, and another couple from what had once been Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe. All this diversity made for interesting discussions as we opened up to each other at meals and around camp fires in the evening.
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And of course, we touched upon the more intimate things of life: children, deaths of or separations from spouses, and, as we settled into the trip and admitted several trips a night to the toilet, the state of our prostates. It was somewhat akin to that film of long ago “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium”
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although in our case we only toured one small part of one country (but still managed to clock up 2,600 km; just to put things in perspective, the Kimberley is twice as big as the UK), the coach we rode in was technologically very sophisticated, custom-built on a Mercedes chassis to take anything the rugged unpaved roads of the outback could throw at it
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and we slept in tents – I was strongly reminded of my Boy Scout days.
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The tour started in Broome, a small town on the Indian Ocean and once a pearling station, went east along the paved Great Northern Highway for a thousand kilometers or so, to the even smaller town of Kununurra, and then looped back to Broome along the unpaved Gibb River Road, with a detour north at some point along the Kalumburu Road to visit the Mitchell Falls situated very nearly on the northern coast. I do not intend to bore my readers with a detailed travel diary. I will just touch upon some highlights in the next posts. So cheerio, mates!

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map: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kimberley_(Western_Australia)
Kimberley vista: my wife’s photo
Termite mounds: https://www.birdwatch.co.uk/categories/articleitem.asp?item=643
Cattle: http://kimberleymedia.photoshelter.com/gallery/Cattle-Kimberley-Images/G0000RM6HcfEh3fE/
Kununurra: http://www.avalook.com/newsite/?page_id=13
Old Aborigine: my wife’s photo
Around the campfire: http://sacreddestinations.org/sacred-destinations-spiritual-tours-meditation-retreats.html
“If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium” film poster: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/If_It%27s_Tuesday,_This_Must_Be_Belgium
Coach: http://www.outbackspirittours.com.au/tours/cape-york-wilderness-adventure
Tents: my wife’s photo

NOTES ON AUSTRALIA – ABORIGINAL ART

Beiing, 6 October 2013

My last post ended with us driving up King’s Highway towards Canberra. The only reason we were going there was to visit a couple of museums to look at their collections of indigenous art. There’s been a lot of brouhaha over the last thirty years about the new indigenous, aboriginal art coming out of Australia and I was curious to see what I would find in situ. I’ll say straight out that on the basis of what I’d seen before coming to Australia I was not a huge fan of indigenous Australian art. But I was willing to be persuaded.

Our first port of call on this voyage of discovery was the New South Wales Gallery of Art in Sydney, one of those Worthy Civic Buildings which I referred to in my first Australian post. We started by visiting the exhibition Sydney Moderns, whose poster picture was this painting of the Sydney Harbour Bridge (which I had a few things to say about in that same post).

gallery of nsw-harbour bridge

Nice, but really this was just an outpost of European art. So then, after a quick salad on the terrace of the Gallery’s cafeteria, we headed for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Art collection.

And I found myself having the same problem I’ve always had with aboriginal art.

It’s the dot thing. The dense array of dots and lines which make up the paintings leave me cold. It’s just … too much. My eyes wander over all those dots, and wavy lines, and circles, and what-have-you, and … that’s it, they just wander, and eventually slide off the painting. My appreciation is not helped by the often dull pigments which are used. Here’s a number of this type of painting, from the 1970s onwards (when it seems that this style burst onto the art scene) in the National Gallery’s collection in Canberra.

Woman’s fire Dreaming, by David Corby Tjapaltjarri (1971):

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Untitled, by Timmy Payungka Tjapangarti (1989):

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Wirrpi (Near Lake Macdonald), by Yala Yala Gibbs Tjungarrayi (1997):

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Tupun Nguranguru, by Harry Brown and others (2012):

national gallery-painting-10

I can’t even get comfort out of the paintings’ spiritual content. There is a lot of talk of these paintings representing the spiritual dreamings of the artist, and we are invited to see in all those dots, wavy lines, and geometrical figures, dreams of rivers, hills, rocks, pools, and other elements of the landscape, or to see real or imagined animals, spirits, or ancestors, the whole sometimes representing tribal myths. But this is not my spiritual language. Give me a Virgin Mary and some saints and I can “read” the spiritual message. Aboriginal spirituality, alas, is a closed book for me, and will always be.

But all is not lost for me. There is Rover Thomas.

The first time I came across Thomas was a few years ago in Paris. My wife and I were there on our way to somewhere else, but we took a few days off to visit some new things which had been sprung up in the city since our last visit. One of these was the new Musée du Quai Branly, a museum which focuses on indigenous art, cultures and civilizations from all over the world (as one might guess, the core of the collection is a couple of colonial-era collections, but we’ll skip over that). Great museum, by the way, well worth a visit.

Musee du quai branly

The museum has a section on aboriginal art from Australia. To be honest, it is not the most interesting part of the collection. But it did have a painting by Rover Thomas, River Ord, River Bow, River Denham.

Now that is a style which I can relate to! Clean, simple lines, on which my eyes can fasten and linger.

This is another Rover Thomas in the National Gallery in Canberra, Ruby Plains killing 1 (1990)

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One of the things I learned in Australia is that Thomas is part of a group of like-minded painters from the Kimberley region. Here are a couple of paintings by Paddy Jampin Jaminji.

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In passing, I should say that the first of Thomas’s painting, a bird’s-eye view of rivers in a landscape, brought a memory back to the surface, of a visit which my wife and I made a few years ago (maybe the same summer we visited the Musée du Quai Branly) to the Tate Modern in London. They were showing a painting from their collection by the Australian painter Fred Williams. I show it here.

Dry Creek Bed, Werribee Gorge I 1977 by Fred Williams 1927-1982

Same idea, different approach.

Anyway, coming back to aboriginal art, in Sydney my wife and I came across another style of aboriginal art which we found quite congenial. These are paintings on bark. Here are a couple of examples from another museum we visited in Sydney, the Museum of Contemporary Art, from the period 1960-80.

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So like I say, there is hope for me. I just have to ignore the dot paintings, even though they seem to dominate the market.

By the way, in Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, we stumbled across these wonderful objects:

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These are made by an aboriginal group called the Tjanpi Desert Weavers. Here’s a couple of photos of the artists making these objects.

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Those last pictures of the desert part of Australia move me to finish with this coda. During my web surfing for this post, I discovered another school of aboriginal painting, from the 1950s, the so-called Hermannsburg School. The primary artist from this school was Albert Namatjira. Here is what seems to be a typical example of his style:

artist-albert-namatjira

When I looked at this and other of Namatjira paintings – watercolours, actually, for the most part – I had a shock of recognition. My parents had a small painting in exactly this style! I have already mentioned that my father was really into genealogy. As part of his work, he discovered that a long-distant cousin had emigrated to Australia during the Gold Rush. Not from my father’s English side of the family, by the way, but from the French side! He then tracked down some of the man’s descendants, got into correspondence with them, and finally, when he had retired, visited Australia with my mother to meet them. One of them gave him the painting, which she had painted (she said; who knows, though, maybe it was an Albert Namatjira!)

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painting Sydney Harbour Bridge: http://media2.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/thumbnails/uploads/rotator_images/SYDMOD_980x400_SID50819.jpg.770x314_q85_crop.jpg
“Woman’s fire Dreaming”: http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/IMAGES/LRG/167747.jpg
“Untitled”: http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/IMAGES/LRG/181491.jpg
“Wirrpi (Near Lake Macdonald)”: http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/IMAGES/LRG/227909.jpg
“Tupun Nguranguru” : http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/IMAGES/LRG/223919.jpg
Musee du quai Branly: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/archive/f/f2/20100310000626!Musee_du_quai_Branly_exterieur.jpg
“River Ord, River Bow, River Denham”: http://richardtulloch.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/rover-thomas.jpg
“Ruby Plains killing 1”: http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/IMAGES/LRG/147688.jpg
Paddy Jampin Jaminji-1: http://img.aasd.com.au/30313805.jpg
Paddy Jampin Jaminji-2: http://img.aasd.com.au/05502896.jpg
Fred Williams: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/images/work/T/T12/T12271_9.jpg
Bark paintings: my pictures
Tjanpi Desert Weavers: my pictures
Albert Namatjira: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/1/16/Namatjira_Landscape.jpg