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Friday, 30 January 2015

Folk memories of the Holocene sea-level rise

There's an interesting article doing the rounds today which argues -- very convincingly -- that Aboriginal stories about "lost lands" off the coasts of Australia cannot have been fabricated or passed on from one group to another, given the enormous distances which separate the various tribal areas.  On that basis, argue the authors, we must have an actual folk memory transmitted in the form of stories over thousands of generations -- going back maybe 13,000 years.

Another point made by the authors is that these stories (based on the post-glacial or Holocene inundation from -120m to more or less present-day sea-level) do not relate to flood stories (like the Biblical Noah's Flood) since they all tell of a PERMANENT loss of land, not a temporary catastrophic inundation.

All very interesting.  Where I part company with the authors is over the matter of how unique these Aboriginal stories are.  They may be unique to the United States and Australia, but in Europe that are by no means uncommon.  Atlantis, Dogger Land etc.........  and the best story of all is of course the tale (or tales) of the Lowland Hundred or Cantre'r Gwaelod in Cardigan Bay, inundated by a rising sea level and never recovered.  I have discussed Cantre'r Gwaelod and the submerged forests of Wales on a number of occasions.  See here, for example:
The inundation of Cardigan Bay -- the oldest story in Wales?

and this is a good summary in Wikipedia:

The folk memory of Cantre'r Gwaelod

Deep time: Aboriginal stories tell of when the Great Barrier Reef was dry land
Nick Reid & Patrick Nunn
29th January 2015
The Ecologist

Stories told by Australia's Aboriginal peoples tell of the time, over 10,000 years ago, when the last Ice Age came to an end, and sea levels rose by 120 metres, write Nick Reid & Patrick Nunn. The narratives tally with the findings of contemporary science, raising the question: what is it about Aborigines and their culture than so accurately transmitted their oral traditions across thousands of generations?

Indigenous Australian stories and sea-level change

Reid, N
Nunn, Patrick
Sharpe, M


Oral traditions, especially contrasted with written history, are typically portrayed as inaccurate. Commenting on native title claims in the US, Simic (2000) made the specific claim: “As a general rule, unwritten legends that refer to events more than 1,000 years in the past contain little, if any, historical truth”. So can preliterate Indigenous languages tell us anything factual about the distant past, or does the transmission of historical facts become inevitably corrupted? Changes in sea levels around the Australian coast are now well established. Marine geographers can now point to specific parts of the Australian coast and know with some confidence what the sea levels were at a particular time before the present. This paper reports on a substantial body of Australian Aboriginal stories that appear to represent genuine and unique observations of post-glacial increases in sea level, at time depths that range from about 13,400–7,500 years BP. This paper makes the case that endangered Indigenous languages can be repositories for factual knowledge across time depths far greater than previously imagined, forcing a rethink of the ways in which such traditions have been dismissed.


TonyH said...

Perhaps the sheer vastness of the length of time that the Aboriginal peoples of Australasia were unimpeded and undisturbed by other members of the human race, and the fact that the Aborigines remained in much the same relationship with their land and the ecology surrounding them, gives some credence to the possibility that their "ancient" ancestral tales may be just that: ancient.

A G said...

Alex Gee said.. May i suggest you give this topic a wide berth!

There are people around who believe that unwritten (although written/made up some time later) legends 2000 years old are true!

I really wouldn't like the debate on this blog to swerve in that direction!

You've got enough nutters (myself included) already!

TonyH said...

Alex Gee

You have a scientific mind I am sure.If you possess an open mind, I suggest you (and anyone else who is sceptical about "legends 2000 years old" with an equally open mind) obtain a copy, second - hand, first - hand or borrowed from the public library of:


by IAN WILSON. ISBN 0753804999 Paperback 1996.

My copy is 1996 and so it updates the 1st edition by incorporating the latest archaeological discoveries.

I think you will find it a real eye - opener!!! That is, if you do possess a truly open mind. Give it a go is my advice - you obviously are a person who needs its approach, described by 'The Bookseller' as "An impressive examination of the facts, easy to read and a superbly produced book".

Ian Wilson also wrote "Shakespeare: the Evidence".

chris johnson said...

I don't agree Alex. Having been told some of these tales/legends by my mother, who was born not far from the Prescelli hills, I feel they have a place somewhere, somehow.

The passing on of oral history and traditions happens when a community cannot rely on "society" to teach their children. In Wales there have been successive attempts to suppress the language, rewrite history, and impose religious practice. This fuelled a fierce passion for preserving an own culture and passing on tales that you would not hear in school or church but that were interesting and perhaps even important.

It is very curious how some of the ancient Welsh tales might have a basis in fact, stretching back thousands of years even. Something my mother would not have believed even as she told them to me as a good Welsh mother should.

So let us please keep the occasional diversion into folk memories and tall tales, even the odd water monster. Afanc anybody?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Yes, I'm happy to think that hazy folk memories can be kept alive through myths and folk-tales for a very long period of time. the Bible and Jesus are not very useful comparisons, since we are into the period of historical record keeping and writing -- whereas things are much more difficult in the pre-historic period.

That having been said, we have to be very careful about inventing folk memories. I have had a go at Profs W and D on this blog, for inventing a myth about the sacred springs of Eastern Preseli simply because they thing there ought to be one. There isn't one -- I have studies Pembs folk tales for a long time, and have never come across a single tale to support the idea that the Carn Meini area was renowned for healing springs or healing rocks. And when it comes to dubious histories such as that of Geoffrey of Monmouth, we have to remember that in the Middle Ages people were just as inclined to create fiction -- and dress it us as fact -- as they are today.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Oops -- that should be: "simply because they think there ought to be one..."

TonyH said...

"Aboriginal Europe...Dogger Land for example".

I was mistaken in thinking I was listening to the Weather Forecast, then.

Seriously, ARE there Aboriginal stories about Dogger Land, and are they to be found in England, Holland, and Scandinavia, for instance?

BRIAN JOHN said...

I have assumed that there must be ancient stories of drowned lands around the North Sea, but I'm not expert enough on folk tales from that region to pontificate! If anybody knows more, please let us know!

As for the "legend" or "myth" of Cantre'r Gwaelod and Cardigan Bay, we are on safer ground. A very ancient resident population with long memories -- as distinct from the more recent waves of settlers that came into Eastern England, for example. According to the folk tale experts in Wales, including Rachel Bromwich, there are two distinct tales about the flooding of the Lowland Hundred. The one which most people know, featuring the "Immortal Drunkard" called seithennin, has features which lark it as probably medieval. But apparently the story of Mererid, the female guardian of the sacred well, has features that can be traced all the way back to the Iron Age -- so that would make it a least a thousand years older than the other story and maybe 2,000 years old. So in those circumstances we old we might indeed be justified in talking of an Aboriginal folk memory...........

chris johnson said...

Couple of thoughts here.
I was very surprised reading the old Welsh tales, written together sometime in 11 century AD - about references to walking from Ireland to Wales.

With what I now know about geology - 99% from Brian's Blog - this puts us back well beyond the Allerod and even then some serious wading would have been involved. Into the paleolithic in other words. Is it possible that folk memories continued from the paleolithic, at least with sufficient support that they were not edited out in the following 20000 years?

I suppose the second thought is Niel Lord Smail from Harvard and his thoughts on deep history. Anybody on this blog have a view before I waste my time?

Helen said...

Perhaps slightly off-topic yet maybe of interest nevertheless, there was a short strand in the BBC World Service 'Science in Action' programme earlier on Australian Aboriginal astronomy. From the Beeb's website:

"A strange ancient rock formation in the Australian outback, appears to be an early map of the Universe. But how this was discovered sheds light on our over reliance on technology."

The programme is available to listen to in its 28-minute entirety here:

The Australian Aboriginal astronomy section starts at around the 14 minutes & 31 seconds mark and runs for around 6 minutes, bear with it for tales of pre-Pythagoras Pythagorean alignments of Ye Olde Ancient Stones Down Under! Didgeridoos! Luddist subtext!

BRIAN JOHN said...

Helen-- in La Gomera just now, with occasional access to very slow broadband. But maybe others would like to listen in to that prog.

This isn't another of those spoofs, is it? That having been asked, I suppose we should not be too surprised that some ancient Aborigine might want to make a representation of the night sky on a rock surface somewhere.....

Helen said...

Brian - having listened again, I fear the strand, as interesting and as jolly as it may be, is a long way from either folk memories or, indeed, the wider focus of this fine blog. Nevertheless, I've transcribed the broadcast section in case it should be of passing interest to anyone; it should be freely accessible to view at the following link:

My apologies for the distraction.