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Australian Stories Capture 10,000-Year-Old Climate History

Aboriginal groups from coast to coast describe walking to places that are now islands

Teens from the Njarainjari Aboriginal Community walk in the shallows of Lake Albert in Southern Australia (Amy Toensing/National Geographic Society/Corbis)
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Three islands lie just off the coast near Perth, Australia. All are popular tourist destinations: Rottnest Island is famous for its population of quokkas, a small marsupial. The tiny Carnac Island has sea lions and deadly tiger snakes. Slender Garden Island is home to a naval base.

All three of these islands were originally inhabited by Aboriginal people, though. And, according to Climate Central, an early European settler described some stories told by the Aboriginal people of a time when the islands "once formed part of the mainland, and that the intervening ground was thickly covered with trees." But in one story, those trees caught fire and burned "with such intensity that the ground split asunder with a great noise, and the sea rushed in between, cutting off these islands from the mainland."

It may seem like a just a story, but researchers recently matched this and other Aboriginal stories to real events. The sea did rush in—at the end of the last glacial period—about 7,500 to 8,900 years ago.

Another community tells of a time when northeastern Australia’s shoreline reached all the way out to the Great Barrier Reef. They recall a river that flowed into the sea at what is now Fitzroy Island. For Climate Central, John Upton writes, "The great gulf between today’s shoreline and the reef suggests that the stories tell of a time when seas were more than 200 feet lower than they are today, placing the story’s roots at as many as 12,600 years ago."

“It’s quite gobsmacking to think that a story could be told for 10,000 years,” Nicholas Reid, a linguist specializing in Aboriginal Australian languages at Australia’s University of New England, told Upton. “It’s almost unimaginable that people would transmit stories about things like islands that are currently underwater accurately across 400 generations.”

The story did last because the telling of it was kept alive by rich tradition. Without a written language, Australian tribes relied on oral storytelling to keep their identity — it is part of the collection of knowledge, practices and faith referred to as The Dreaming. The stories are more than oral tellings. They include paintings on rock or bark, drawings in sand, ceremonies, song and dance. “There are aspects of storytelling in Australia that involved kin-based responsibilities to tell the stories accurately,” Reid said. That rigor provided “cross-generational scaffolding” that “can keep a story true.”

Reid worked with a geography professor at the Univeristy of the Sunshine Coast, Patrick Nunn, to match the stories with the land and how it has changed. A preliminary draft of their work, presented at an indigenous language conference in Japan, makes the case for 18 Aboriginal stories describing the coastal flooding of the end of the last ice age. The paper also argues that researchers who are building a picture of our world and its changes should look to old stories. "[E]ndangered Indigenous languages can be respositories for factual knowledge across time depths far greater than previously imagined, forcing a rethink of the ways in which such traditions have been dismissed," Nunn writes.

“There's a comparably old tradition among the Klamath of Oregon that must be at least 7,700 years old – it refers to the last eruption of Mount Mazama, which formed Crater Lake,” Nunn told Climate Central. “I’m also working on ancient inundation stories and myths from India, and I’ve been trying to stimulate some interest among Asian scholars.”

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