To Find Meteorites, Listen to the Legends of Australian Aborigines

Oral traditions may have preserved records of impacts over thousands of years and could lead to fresh scientific discoveries

Henbury Crater
One of the 4,700-year-old impact craters at Henbury Meteorites Conservation Reserve in Australia. Courtesy of Flickr user Matthias Siegel

In the heart of Australia, at a remote site south of Alice Springs, the land is pitted with about a dozen strange depressions. Don’t drink the rainwater that pools there, or a fire devil will fill you with iron.

So goes one Aboriginal tale that has been passed down across generations. The site is the Henbury meteorite field, which was created about 4,700 years ago when a large, iron-filled meteorite slammed into Earth’s atmosphere and broke apart, scattering fragments. The Aboriginal warning is perhaps one of the clearest examples of an oral tradition that has preserved the memory of an ancient meteorite strike, argues Duane Hamacher at the University of New South Wales in Australia. According to Hamacher, such tales may be vital clues pointing toward future finds.

“These traditions could lead to the discovery of meteorites and impact sites previously unknown to Western science,” he writes in a paper that will appear in an upcoming issue of Archaeoastronomy and that was published online August 27.

Most myths and tales are just stories passed down through the ages, altered over time like a vast game of “Telephone.” But some are based on actual geological or astronomical events that occurred long ago. The search for the truth behind those stories has inspired a field of science called geomythology.

Most stories have been passed down for only 600 or 700 years, geoscientist Patrick Nunn of the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia told Smithsonian earlier this year. There are outliers: The Klamath people tell a legend about a battle between two powerful spirits, which details the eruption of Mount Mazama and the creation of Crater Lake in Oregon about 7,700 years ago. But most stories don’t last that long. “These kinds of things are very, very rare,” Nunn said.

Crater Lake
Sunrise at Crater Lake in Oregon. Courtesy of Flickr user Robert Shea

In his study, Hamacher identifies several oral traditions from indigenous Australians that he says can be linked to meteorites. The Henbury craters, for instance, were found in 1899 but were not immediately recognized as impact sites. At the time, cattle station owner Walter Parke called them “one of the most curious spots I have ever seen in the country” in a letter to anthropologist Frank Gillen. “To look at it I cannot but think it has been done by human agency, but when or why, goodness knows.”

In 1921, a man named James M. Mitchell visited the Henbury site with an Aboriginal guide who refused to go near the depressions, saying the place was where a fire “debil-debil” (devil) had come out of the sky and killed everything. Thirteen years later, Mitchell returned. By then, the astronomical connection had been made—a prospector found iron slugs in the craters in 1931—but Mitchell’s new Aboriginal guide again expressed fear of the site. He said that his people wouldn’t camp within two miles of the depressions, get closer than half a mile or collect the water that filled some. A fire devil would fill them with iron should they dare. The guide knew this, he said, because his grandfather had seen the fire devil come from the sun. Hamacher found similar tales that other Aboriginal people told to visitors in the first half of the 20th century.

The fire devil is probably representative of that long-ago event, Hamacher concludes. “The current evidence indicates that Aboriginal people witnessed the event, recorded the incident in oral traditions and those traditions remained intact through the 1930s and possibly later,” he writes. “If the tradition is a living memory of the event, it is well over 4,500 years old.”

Scientists today travel to the ends of the Earth searching for meteorites. Sometimes they even race to the site of an impact looking for fragments. These space rocks are leftovers from the building blocks of the solar system and can yield important clues to the origins of planets—and perhaps even help us understand the spark of life on Earth. Using local myths to uncover ancient impacts could offer scientists a fresh way to track down some of these celestial arrivals.

Join science writer Sarah Zielinski and hear more tales of geomythology at the Smithsonian Associates event “Oracles, Chimeras, and Bears, Oh My: Is There Science Behind Ancient Stories?” at the S. Dillon Ripley Center in Washington, D.C., on October 7.

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