Myths are time capsules designed to weather a voyage of centuries, even millennia.
As philosopher David Abrams has commented, “Oral cultures preserve verbal knowledge by constantly repeating it. Practical knowledge must be embedded in spoken formulas that can be easily recalled––in prayers and proverbs, in continually recited legends and mythic stories…without writing, knowledge of the diverse properties of particular animals, plants, and places can be preserved only by being woven into stories.”
Yet, how accurate can the transmission of knowledge of animals, plants, and places be over the centuries? Can it be accurate enough to reach back as far as 10,000 years ago to the end of the last ice age? Can we read in them a record of when the seas began to rise as the ice caps melted with the warming climate?
It’s an awesome prospect. And, yes, according to researchers, we can — with remarkable precision.
Science journalist Jeff Goodell’s recent book, The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of Civilized World, looks both at the probable geological origins of the myth of Noah’s flood in the Old Testament and the far older tales preserved by the Aboriginal Australians which can be argued to reach back all the way to the end of the last ice age.
Here’s what Goodell’s book has to say:
Nicholas Reid is an Australian linguist who studies the dying languages the Australian aborigines. Back in the 1970s, during his undergraduate days, he read a book about a nearly extinct aboriginal tribe in Northern Australia. For years, one particular sentence in the book stuck with him: “it is, however, worth noting that a theme running through all the coastal Yidinji myths is that the coastline was once were the barrier reef now stands (as in fact it was some 10,000 years ago), but the sea then rose and the shore retreated to its current position.” The idea lingered with Reid over the years. Was it possible that a 10,000-year old event such as sea level rise could be the basis for aboriginal myths?
In 2014, Reid mention the idea to a colleague, Patrick Nunn, a marine geologist who have studied sea level rise in the Pacific. Nunn suggested that if the specifics in the myths were clear enough and detailed enough, they could be corroborated with geological data, allowing him and Reid to essentially date the origins of the myths.
Aboriginal societies have existed in Australia for around 65,000 years, isolated until the European colonization of the continent in 1788. Australia was undoubtedly a hard environment to live in, and survival through the generations depended on passing down information about food, the landscape, and climate. But that didn’t necessarily mean the stories the aboriginals told were, after thousands of years of retelling, in any sense “precise.”
“It had long been assumed by linguists that the oldest oral stories are 800 years old – after that, any specific references in the stories are lost,” Reid explained to me. “How could a story be told accurately, over and over again, for 10,000 years?”
Without trying too hard, he found 21 examples of stories about sea level rise. Each one was different, but they seemed to be chronicling a time when the sea was rising and the people who lived on the coasts and the islands were grappling with how to deal with it. In regions of Australia where the coastal land had a low topography, even a small rise in sea level would have claimed large chunks of land relatively quickly. “People must have been aware that every year the sea was getting higher,” Reid said. “And they must have had stories from their fathers and grandfathers, and great-grandfathers, that the sea used to be out even further.”
Here is one example:
“In the beginning, as far back as we can remember, our home islands were not islands at all as they are today. They were part of a peninsula that jutted out from the mainland and we roamed freely throughout the land without having to get in a boat like we do today. Then Garnguur, the seagull woman, took her raft and dragged it back and forth across the neck of the peninsula, letting the sea pour in and making our homes into islands.”
This story is about the origin of the Wellesley Islands off the northern coast of Australia, and it parallels other stories from other parts of Australia. Along the south coast stories written down early in colonial times told about when these areas were dry, a time when people hunted kangaroo and emu there, before the water rose and flooded them, never again to recede.
Another story collected from the Yidinji people of the Cairns area – now a coastal town that is a frequent jumping-off point for expeditions to the Great Barrier Reef – recalls a time when Fitzroy Island, which is now a mile or so off the coast, was part of the mainland. The story describes several named landmarks with remembered historical-cultural associations that are now underwater. According to Nunn and Reid, based on the details in the story, researchers can be almost certain that the people of this area occupied the coast “where the Great Barrier Reef now stands” during the last ice age, when it was a broad floodplain with undulating hills, bordered by steep cliffs – which are now islands like Fitzroy.
“Our expectation originally was that the sea level must have been creeping up very slowly and not been noticeable in an individual’s lifetime,” Reid told me. “But we came to realize that Australia must in fact have been abuzz with news and there would have been constant inland movement. There would have been massive ramifications of this.”
Still, the idea that these stories were a chronicling of actual events was remarkable. “If you are talking about ten thousand years, you are really talking about three hundred to four hundred generations,” Reid said. “The idea that you can transmit anything over four hundred generations is extraordinary.” But Reid believes a key feature of Australian Aboriginal storytelling culture – a “cross-generational cross-checking” process – could explain the stories’ endurance through the millennia. In this process, a father will pass down the story to his sons – and the son’s nephews and nieces will be responsible for ensuring that their uncle knows those stories correctly.
These stories, of course, tell us nothing about what these aboriginal tribes thought or felt about the seas rising around them. But they do capture how deeply significant and strange this experience must have been, how inexplicable.