About Me

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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Animals Through Ancient Eyes; southern hemisphere art sites

In Peru recently, primarily looking at natural history, we also saw some remarkable art sites, all centuries old and representing the work of cultures now gone, though some of their descendants certainly live on. All were fascinating, some were truly spectacular, and it occurred to me that it might be interesting to put those photos, and others, together in a post featuring images of animals as depicted by people who were entirely uninfluenced by European art or science. I make no claims to the least scintilla of expertise in anthropology or art - my aim here is simply to share and celebrate some of the images, all from the Southern Hemisphere, all in situ, and all created by people who lived and died before contact with Europeans, that I've been lucky enough to see and enjoy. (Actually in a couple of cases there was slight overlap while the art was still being produced - eg in the Top End of Australia, and the Inca Empire centred on Peru - but the principle stands.) In each case, there is plenty of readily available on-line information on the cultures if you want to explore further.

The post covers three continents (albeit without much depth), and at least half a dozen cultures; in popular writing indigenous Australians are usually referred to as one culture, but I'm not sure how valid that is. It doesn't matter much in this context anyway. 

Undoubtedly the most dramatic animal depictions I've seen, at least in terms of scale, are the famed Nazca Lines of the southern desert hinterland of Peru, which are so vast that they can only be properly appreciated from the air, though some can be recognised from nearby hills. Indeed they were only 'discovered' in the 1930s by commercial pilots. (There are also many geometric shapes, which are even larger.) There is a whole industry based on flying visitors over the remarkable art gallery, with several flights a day, from a surreal modern airport terminal at Pisco which is a vast empty barn, save only for the little Nazca flight desk. It was built in 2015 as a backup to Lima airport, 230km to the north; in its own way it's as mysterious as the Nazca Lines, but I found the lines a lot more interesting and aesthetic. As to how they designed and why they were formed, we don't know, but you can spend a rainy afternoon reading lots of ideas, some fascinating, some profoundly weird.

Spider Monkey. This image is some 95 metres wide; try and imagine how you'd go about 'drawing' the outline
working only at ground level. These animals certainly didn't live in the desert; the nearest ones were
(and are) hundreds of kilometres to the east, in the Amazon forests.
The loss of the top of the tail is symptomatic of damage from tracks and other interference, mostly unintentional - they are simply too vast to recognise from the ground. Access is now strictly forbidden, though recent squatter incursions are also cause for concern. 

The Nazca people apparently lived from 2500 to 1500 years ago. The lines were constructed by moving the red iron oxide surface gravel to expose the pale under-layer. (In the photos, the red has been distorted by the tinted plane windows.) This could only work in a landscape where it virtually never rains, and winds are rare. Here are some more.

Spider, 45 metres long. Its accuracy and complexity astonishes me.
Supposedly a condor, though the proposal that it's a mockingbird is, I think, equally plausible.
One of the largest of the animal geoglyphs, this is a mighty 135 metres long and wide.
Another slightly ambiguous bird; sadly perhaps half has been destroyed. It is generally believed to be a parrot,
which I find convincing, but a pelican has also been suggested.
Another one of uncertain identity, though the long neck has led to it being interpreted as a heron.
It is huge, nearly 300 metres long.
Not much doubt here - this is a beautiful hundred metre-long hummingbird.
This magnificent whale was perhaps my favourite, but maybe only because it was the first one we saw.
I'm uncertain as to the nature of the broad line unfortunately running through the art work.
The Nazca were people to whom the sea was crucial; there is no evidence that they hunted whales,
but they would certainly have seen them from shore, and probably found the occasional one beached.
And plants feature too, though not many.
A complex tree; fortunately the highway just missed it! A service station is almost alongside,
with a viewing platform at the top of the photo, below the road.
The only similar work I've seen (though others certainly exist) are the great geoglyphs of the imposing Atacama Desert in northern Chile, some 800km to the south. Some were made in similar fashion to the Nazca lines, but others comprise polished stones piled on the desert 'canvas'. Overall they cover a much bigger area and mostly occur along east-west trade routes. Individual ones are perhaps smaller than most of the Nazca creations, but they often occur in groups. The tradition seems to have been begun by the Tiwanaku and probably continued by the Incas, but this is uncertain. It is unsurprising that camelids - llamas and alpacas for instance - feature heavily. The ones we saw were placed on hillsides to be visible to anyone passing by.

A whole hillside of  'dug out' geoglyphs near Iquique. In the centre is a large camelid.
To its left may be a Puma.
 Further north, near Arica close to the Peruvian border, are striking forms made by piling rocks.
A whole herd of camelids across the hillside; detail below.

Camelids formed more simply, perhaps by a different culture from the others?
To the left here is a bird, which I suggest could well be a flamingo.
In the north of Peru, on the desert coast, the Moche culture thrived from some 1900 to 1300 years ago. In recent times important work has been done excavating their huge mud-brick pyramids which formed the tombs of rulers. The exquisite sculptures and jewellery which were buried with them are now displayed in museums where photography is forbidden, but the tombs themselves display superb animal art, including remarkably preserved wall paintings and friezes, oft-repeated series made of clay, standing out from the walls. Many of the paintings are of patterns or gods, but not all.
Readily recognisable Andean Condors from the El Brujo complex north-west of Trujillo.
This complex of excavated pyramid tomb and museum is better known as the resting place of
the 'Lady of Cao', an unexpected female ruler.
Much larger is the extensive complex of the Huacas del Sol y de la Luna (roughly, Sacred Sites of the Sun and Moon), south of Trujillo. Its treasures too are kept in a superb museum nearby.

Ocean themes feature heavily, as befits a culture living near a desert coast. All the following images are from the Huaca del Sol.
One of the pyramids above,
and a small part of the excavation, below.

Fish frieze (which continues for some distance).

More seabirds, but I'm less confident of identifying these.
Sealife doesn't entirely dominate however. 
I do like these squirrels, which continue for many tens of metres.
Much further east, high in the Andes, is the mighty walled city of Kuélap, built 1500 years ago on a limestone ridge above the Utcubamba River, 3000 metres above sea level. Many of the structures are still substantially intact, and some stone artwork survives, including this head.
The walls of mighty Kuélap from below.

This bas-relief head is believed to represent a Puma.
I have seen little ancient art in situ in Africa, but one site which made a lasting impression on me was at Twyfelfontein in Damaraland of northern Namibia. Here beautiful engravings have been etched into the sandstone surfaces by generations of San shamans working, as far as I am aware, without metal. They are believed to be 6000 years old, and possibly up to 10,000 years, and it is regarded as among the largest and most significant rock art sites in Africa. These images are scans of slides taken in 2003.
Giraffe - though the depictions are so good that they hardly need explanation.

To the left of this giraffe's forefoot is a rhinoceros, and beyond is probably a herd of zebras.
The Lion however is very curious. With prey in its mouth, it has clearly five toes on each foot, though
a Lion has only four, as the artist would well have known. This is apparently a human (presumably the shaman)
in Lion form. Moreover the tail tip is also in the form of a paw print!

Ostriches and hoof prints, which our local guide confidently said are those of Kudus.

Wildebeest herd, and another giraffe.
Which brings us back to Australia, where indigenous rock art sites are known from across the country. Most, though not all, feature animals, painted with natural pigments, especially clay and ochre, on sheltered walls of caves and overhangs, especially on sandstone. Some may not be photographed for cultural reasons, but many may. Here are a few. In southern Australia the direct cultural line to the old artists has been largely lost, but not in the north, where paintings are often renewed, under strict cultural laws.

South of Canberra, in Namadgi National Park in the mountains, there are some surviving artworks, usually ascribed to Ngunnawal or Ngambri artists. One such, readily accessible, is at Yankee Hat; here the canvas is granite.
The Yankee Hat site under a huge granite overhang, at the foot of a hill overlooking a
broad grassy valley (a natural frost hollow).

Central is a figure which could be either a turtle or Echidna, above a kangaroo,
which is seemingly being harassed by two small Dingoes.

To the right could be a Dingo; the two figures to the left are probably human.
Much of Australia's best-known indigenous art sites however are in the Northern Territory, where culture is alive and well. One such is in central Australia, in Emily Gap/Nthwerrke in the MacDonnell Ranges east of Alice Springs. It represents Yeperenye, part of the 'caterpillar dreaming' of the eastern Arrernte people. (I've put the phrase into parentheses only to indicate that any attempt to translate such complex concepts can only be approximate.)
Some of the 'caterpillar dreaming' art, Emily Gap/Nthwerrke, above and below.

Further north, in the sandstone country, are even better-known sites, with lots of less-famed ones.
Wall art, featuring a kangaroo, in the main gorge, Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) National Park.
Further north still are the wonderful sites of Kakadu National Park, especially at Burrungkuy (long known erroneously as Nourlangie Rock) and Ubirr, land of the Bininj/Mungguy people.
It is inevitable that kangaroos, a key part of many traditional Australian economies, will feature heavily.
This example is at Burrungkuy.
But the most magnificent of the accessible art sites in Kakadu is undoubtedly that at Ubirr, a complex of sandstone sites around one main gallery overlooking the Nadab flood plain of the East Alligator River.
The main art site at Ubirr, from above, looking out over the floodplain.
The floodplain's resources inspire many of the subjects. Most of these paintings are around 2,000 years old, though some have been renewed according to custom. You'll probably get more out of these if you click on them to enlarge.
Stingray; there are apparently several species, not all described, of freshwater stingrays in the rivers.

I'm sure someone more familiar than I with the Top End fish could identify this one.
Barramundi, almost certainly.
It was normal practice for later artists to paint over the work of earlier ones.
I interpret this as a Magpie Goose; both birds and eggs were highly important food sources.
I could offer more, but I think this is enough for one sitting.

As I said at the start, this is way outside of my field of competency, but I trust that simply enjoying some lovely images - ie those of the artists, not mine - has been enough. Thanks for reading this far.

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Thursday, 7 December 2017

The Mighty Baobabs

This is another in my periodic series on favourite trees; the most recent one was here, and you can backtrack from there if you're so inclined. I've been wanting to write something on the wonderful baobabs for some time, but was putting it off until I'd met a few more in Madagascar. In the event happenstance and Madagacar Air conspired to rob us of some of the planned trip a few months ago, so I didn't see as many as I'd hoped, but I think there's still enough here to make a post worth while.
Fony Baobab Adansonia rubrostipa, Ifaty Spiny Forest, south-western Madagascar.
Baobabs are a very distinctive genus of nine species found in Madagascar (six), Africa (two) and north-western Australia (one). Until recently they were placed in the family Bombacaceae, but as seems to the way with botanical taxonomy these days, they have now been swept into the huge and unwieldy family Malvaceae (traditionally the home of hibiscuses and mallows). 

The genus name was bestowed by Linnaeus in 1762, to honour French botanist and polymath Michel Adanson, a year after Adanson published the first description of the tree from his explorations in Senegal, where he spent five years collecting everything imaginable, not only plants and animals but trade items, languages and detailed meteorological observations. His family had migrated from Scotland (no idea - weather perhaps?!) and changed the 'm' in their name to an 'n'. He went on to write a two volume Familles des Plantes in which he sought to form all generic names independently of all known languages, including Greek and Latin; it seems to have been too daunting a task however. He also later wanted a coffin garland to represent all his 58 families. Perhaps more significantly his taxonomy was based on what he interpreted as natural relationships, rather than the rather arbitrary arrangements of Linnaeus' early attempts; in this he was ahead of his time, though echoing the suggestions of Robert Ray, a century earlier. He wrote a Natural History of Senegal, but his publisher went broke and Adanson felt obliged to refund those who'd subscribed; this plunged him into a poverty from which he never emerged and he survived only via a small stipend from the French Academy of Sciences. It didn't stop him spending his life on a truly monumental writing project, which basically seems to have comprised everything known about the entire natural world. He offered to the Academy 27 volumes of principles, followed by 150 volumes listing 40,000 species, a dictionary covering 200,000 words (I find this hard to believe, but the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica vouches for it!), 40,000 illustrations, and 30,000 specimens of plants, fungi and animals. The Academy declined to publish. It is reported that when the prestigious French Institute invited him to join, he had to decline because he couldn't afford to buy appropriate clothes.

OK, probably time to return to the trees...
Australian Baobab A. gregorii, Gregory NP, Northern Territory.
This species is closest to a group of four of the Madagascan baobabs,
including the three species illustrated in this posting.
It is unclear whether the genus arose in Madagascar, now their stronghold, or on the African mainland. It is a relatively young genus, apparently no more than 10 million years old, so its journey between Madagascar and Africa, and to Australia, must have been achieved by seeds floating across the ocean. More recently humans have transported the widespread African Baobab A. digitata to Madagascar and much of the tropics. It is a greatly valued species, used for food - the fruit, dried or fresh, is prized, and both seeds and young leaves are eaten, timber (including for musical instruments and weapons), fibre and firewood.

A. digitata, Darwin Botanic Gardens.
Recently (2012) a second African species was discovered. Named A. kilima, it is found widely in southern
and eastern Africa, where it sometimes co-exists with A. digitata. The species are very similar, but A. digitatais unique in having twice the chromosome complement of all the other species.

Very old African Baobabs - individual trees have been aged at over 1,000 years - in the Kalahari Desert,
Botswana, above and below. Both these pictures are from old scanned slides.

Indigenous Australians make cords from the root bark fibre of A. gregorii, and eat the sap.
Australian Baobab, Gregory NP.
In Australia the name baobab - which was collected by Adanson in Senegal - is often corrupted to 'boab'. 'Bottle tree' is also sometimes used, but this is a confusion with Queensland members of the unrelated genus Brachychiton.

Za Baobab A. za, Ifaty Spiny Forest.
I can't find a reference to the name, but I assume it is a Malagasy word for the tree.
In all the species above, the form of the tree is distinctive. They are 'pachycauls', with thick trunks relative to their height, and few branches, mostly sprouting from the top. They are said to be able to store up to 100,000 litres of water in their trunk (in tissue, not a big internal tank!) to last them between wet seasons. All are deciduous, to assist in water conservation.

Perhaps we could end by just enjoying a few more portraits of these magnificent trees.
Madagascar Baobab A. madagascarensis, Ankarana NP, northern Madagascar.
This is a limestone national park, and this species is closely associated with that rock.

Fony Baobab, Ifaty Spiny Forest.
Za Baobab, Ifaty Spiny Forest.
Sakalava Weaver nests, Ifaty village, south-western Madagascar.
Australian Baobabs, Gregory NP.
In a diary entry from my first trip to the east Kimberley, where I first saw these wonderful trees,
I wrote of the "magnificently grotesque Baobabs.... great corpulent patriarchs, with twisted swollen arthritic limbs".
Hopelessly anthropomorphic, I readily acknowledge. But baobabs tend to have that effect on me, I'm afraid. I love them.

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