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First Nations Stories of Ancient Sea-Level Rise Preserved for 13,000 Years

According to a duo of Australian scientists, Aboriginal society has preserved memories of Australia’s coastline dating back to 11,000 – 5,300 BC.

The ceremony is larmidar at Boulia, circa 1900.
Photo: Larmidar ceremony at Boulia, Queensland. The men standing are Yalarrnga men, Bob Roberts, Victor Roberts, Fred Wunarra Roberts and Jacky Roberts. The men sitting are also Yalarrnga men.

(Photo taken by Boulia Shire Clerk c1900)

Prof. Patrick Nunn of the University of the Sunshine Coast and Dr Nick Reid of the University of New England analyzed Aboriginal stories from 21 places around Australia’s coastline, each describing a time when sea levels were significantly lower than today.

“The present sea levels in Australia were reached 7,000 years ago and as such any stories about the coastline stretching much further out to sea had to pre-date that time,”

“These stories talk about a time when the sea started to come in and cover the land, and the changes this brought about to the way people lived – the changes in landscape, the ecosystem and the disruption this caused to their society.”

“It’s important to note that it’s not just one story that describes this process. There are many stories, all consistent in their narrative, across 21 diverse sites around Australia’s coastline.”

Map of Australia showing the 21 coastal locations from which Aboriginal stories about coastal inundation are described in the Australian Geographer paper;
Map of Australia showing the 21 coastal locations from which Aboriginal stories about coastal inundation are described in the Australian Geographer paper; also shown is the extent of the continental shelf that was exposed during the low sea-level stage of the Last Glacial Maximum, about 20,000 years ago. (Image: Patrick Nunn / Nicholas Reid)

Some of the stories are mythologized, some plain narrative. About half came directly from Aboriginal informants, the others relayed through Europeans.

“Anything that goes back thousands of years – nearly 13,000 years in some cases – has to be quite exceptional,” Prof. Nunn said.

“It’s a remarkable time period when we consider our own memories and what we can remember even with the aid of books and other information.”

“I believe these stories endured that long partly due to the harshness of Australia’s natural environment, which meant that each generation had to pass on knowledge to the next in a systematic way to ensure its survival,” he said.

The results are reported in a paper published online by the journal Australian Geographer on September 7.

Sci-News.com 24 September, 2015

Patrick D. Nunn & Nicholas J. Reid. Aboriginal Memories of Inundation of the Australian Coast Dating from More than 7,000 Years Ago. Australian Geographer, published online September 7, 2015; doi: 10.1080/00049182.2015.1077539