Handed-down tales tell of ancient sea level rise

Australian Aborigines’ oral histories may include accounts of sea-level rise more than 7,000 years old

Aborigine

WATERY TALES  A member of an Aboriginal community in Australia’s Northern Territory discusses local tales of ocean deluges with a visiting researcher. New research suggests such accounts describe actual sea-level rises dating to more than 7,000 years ago.

N. Reid, Univ. of New England

Australian Aborigines relate some of the oldest memories in the world, a controversial new study suggests.

Aboriginal groups from every part of Australia’s coastline tell stories of long-ago deluges that can be traced to real events caused by rising sea levels at various times between around 7,250 and 13,070 years ago, two Australian researchers report September 7 in the Australian Geographer. Scientists have established that the sea rose to its present level Down Under between about 18,000 and 7,000 years ago.

Marine geographer Patrick Nunn of the University of the Sunshine Coast in Sippy Downs and linguist Nicholas Reid of the University of New England in Armidale consulted previous estimates of when rising seas reached specific depths at different locations around the continent. From that data, the researchers calculated the approximate timing of ocean incursions described in 21 Aboriginal stories. Those tales about the past, or oral histories, go back several hundred generations, Nunn and Reid suggest.

“Our study opens up the possibility that oral traditions of coastal Australian Aborigines describe real events dated prior to 7,000 years ago,” Reid says.

Many scholars hold that oral traditions survive intact for no more than about 800 years. That limit is thought to stem partly from regular embellishment of stories to keep audiences interested. Storytellers may also alter tales due to outsiders’ influence, memory errors and political pressures.

“Very, very few oral traditions have escaped changing over even brief, observable time periods for reasons that are universal,” says historian David Henige of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Nunn and Reid’s contention that certain Australian Aborigine stories describe events that are more than 7,000 years old can neither be verified nor falsified, Henige asserts.

Peter Hiscock, an archaeologist at the University of Sydney, agrees. “This paper is fantastical and not believable,” he says. It wrongly assumes that Australian Aboriginal societies have remained isolated for the past 50,000 years, allowing oral histories to survive intact. Contact with Westerners over the past several hundred years has changed Aboriginal culture in many ways, he says. 

But archaeologist and linguist Elizabeth Barber finds the study persuasive. Oral traditions in other parts of the world refer to verified events from at least 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, such as specific volcanic eruptions, says Barber, of Occidental College in Los Angeles. “I have no problem believing from the new evidence that Aboriginal stories record direct observations of sea-level rises from many thousands of years back.” Westerners didn’t try to influence Aboriginal stories of ancient deluges like these, having never witnessed those events, she adds.

Nunn and Reid collected 19 Aboriginal stories from written sources, such as anthologies of Aboriginal myths published over the last 200 years. Interviews with Aboriginal people and with researchers who study them yielded another two stories. Dates for ancient water depths along Australia’s coast came from a 2013 paper by another research team.

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Six of the 21 Aboriginal stories give straightforward accounts of sea-level rises. At Port Phillip Bay on the southeastern coast, Aboriginal groups tell of the sea breaking in and covering what was once a kangaroo hunting ground.

Other stories incorporate ocean deluges into myths, many of which warn against breaking rules. An Aboriginal group at Gippsland, east of Port Phillip Bay, tells of a time long ago when their ancestors lived on now-submerged land. While playing, some children found a musical instrument reserved for men’s ceremonies, the story goes. The children showed their find to women back at camp. Immediately, the land crumbled, water rushed in and the people drowned.

Aborigines have always been able to see where rising oceans created offshore islands and water channels, Barber says. That’s helped keep original tales alive, she suggests.

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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