| 3 October 2016
Indigenous Australian storytelling records sea level rises 7,000 years ago
Sunshine Coast University marine geographer Patrick Nunn and University of New England linguist Nicholas Reid believe that 21 Indigenous stories from across the Australian continent faithfully record events between 18,000 and 7000 years ago, when ocean levels rose 120 metres.
Reid says 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.
Scholars have previously been sceptical of how accurately oral traditions reflect real events, however Nunn and Reid's paper 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 which tell of the loss of kangaroo hunting grounds. Others, especially older stories, 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 explains. "There must have been constant inland movement, reestablishing relationships with country, negotiating with inland neighbours about encroaching onto their territory. There would have been massive ramifications of this."
Fortunes were mixed. People on Rottnest and Kangaroo Islands departed as much as 7000 years ago. Others, such as those at Flinders Island in Bass Strait, stayed on and died out as the land grew arid and fresh water became scarce.
Reid says that while it was impossible to prove that Indigenous oral traditions continued unbroken over time, its contemporary features provide clues.
"Say I'm a man from central Australia, my father teaches me stories about my country," Reid says. "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."
Edited from The Guardian (16 September 2016)
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