Indigenous stories of dramatic sea level rises across Australia date back more than 7,000 years in a continuous oral tradition without parallel anywhere in the world, according to new research.
Sunshine Coast University marine geographer Patrick Nunn and University of New England linguist Nicholas Reid believe that 21 Indigenous stories from across the continent faithfully record events between 18,000 and 7000 years ago, when the sea rose 120m.
Reid said a key feature of Indigenous storytelling culture – a distinctive “cross-generational cross-checking” process – might explain the remarkable consistency in accounts passed down by preliterate people, which researchers previously believed could not persist for more than 800 years.
“The idea that 300 generations could faithfully tell a story that didn’t degenerate into Chinese whispers, that was passing on factual information that we know happened from independent chronology, that just seems too good to be true, right?” Reid told Guardian Australia.
“It’s an extraordinary thing. We don’t find this in other places around the world. The sea being 120 metres lower and then coming up over the continental shelf, that happened in Africa, America, Asia and everywhere else. But it’s only in Australia that we’re finding this large canon of stories that are all faithfully telling the same thing.”
Post-glacial sea level rise confirmed
Scholars of oral traditions have previously been sceptical of how accurately they reflect real events.
However, Nunn and Reid’s paper, “Aboriginal memories of inundation of the Australian coast dating from more than 7000 years ago”, published in Australian Geographer, argues the stories provide empirical corroboration of a postglacial sea level rise documented by marine geographers.
Some of the stories are straight factual accounts, such as those around Port Phillip Bay near Melbourne, which tell of the loss of kangaroo hunting grounds.
Others, especially older stories such as those from around Spencer Gulf in South Australia, are allegorical: an ancestral being angered by the misbehaviour of a clan punishes them by taking their country, gouging a groove with a magical kangaroo bone for the sea to swallow up the land.
“Our sense originally is that the sea level must have been creeping up very slowly and not been noticeable in an individual’s lifetime,” Reid said.
“But we’ve come to realise through conducting this research that Australia must in fact have been abuzz with news about this.
“There must have been constant inland movement, reestablishing relationships with country, negotiating with inland neighbours about encroaching onto their territory,” Reid said. “There would have been massive ramifications of this.”
The fortunes of those faced with the decision to retreat as camps, tracks and dreaming places were slowly swallowed up – especially on islands – were mixed.
Those on Rottnest and Kangaroo Islands cut and run up to 7000 years ago. Others, such as those at Flinders Island in Bass Strait, made the fateful decision to stay, and died out as the land grew arid and fresh water became scarce.
Reid said while it was impossible to prove that Indigenous oral traditions had continued unbroken over time, its contemporary features gave a clue as to why it may be the world’s most faithful and durable.
“Say I’m a man from central Australia, my father teaches me stories about my country,” Reid said.
“My sister’s children, my nephews and nieces, are explicitly tasked with the kin-based responsibility for ensuring I know those stories properly. They take those responsibilities seriously. At any given point in time my father is telling the stories to me and his grandkids are checking. Three generations are hearing the story at once … that’s a kind of scaffolding that can keep stories true.
“When you have three generations constantly in the know, and tasked with checking as a cultural responsibility, that creates the kind of mechanism that could explain why [Indigenous Australians] seem to have done something that hasn’t been achieved elsewhere in the world: telling stories for 10,000 years.”
By Joshua Robertson. Source: The Guardian