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September 18, 2015

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Oral histories found to go back almost 10,000 years—often accurately

Sept. 18, 2015
Courtesy of Taylor & Francis journals
and World Science staff

In­dig­e­nous Aus­tralians pass down sto­ries that re­call up to almost 10,000 years of his­to­ry—and ac­cu­rate­ly, in at least some re­spects, a study con­cludes.

These oral histo­ries de­scribe changes in the Aus­tral­ian coast­line that ac­tu­ally oc­curred, due to ris­ing sea lev­els, ac­cord­ing to the re­search­ers.

“Any­thing that goes back thou­sands of years – nearly 10,000 years in some cases – has to be quite ex­cep­tion­al,” said Pat­rick Nunn, co-author of a re­port on the find­ings. He said he does­n’t know of oth­er cul­tures whose oral histo­ries cov­er such long time pe­ri­ods.

Map of Australia showing coastline changes and lo­ca­tions of Abori­ginal sto­ries dis­cussed in the study (courtesy of Tay­lor & Fran­cis jour­nals)


“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,” added Nunn, a ge­og­ra­pher at the Un­ivers­ity of the Sun­shine Coast in Queens­land, Aus­tral­ia.

The find­ings are pub­lished in the ac­a­dem­ic jour­nal Aus­tral­ian Ge­og­ra­pher. Nunn and co-author Nick Reid, a lin­guist at the Un­ivers­ity of New Eng­land in Maine, de­scribe Ab­o­rig­i­nal sto­ries from 21 places around Aus­tral­ia’s coast­line, each speak­ing of a time when sea lev­els were a good deal low­er than to­day.

Nunn said pre­s­ent sea lev­els in Aus­tral­ia were reached 7,000 years ago, so any sto­ries about the coast­line stretch­ing much fur­ther out to sea had to be old­er.

“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,” he said. “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.”

“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.”

Nunn said he be­came in­ter­est­ed in how sto­ries met sci­ence dur­ing a long ten­ure at the Un­ivers­ity of the South Pa­cif­ic in Fi­ji.


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Indigenous Australians pass down stories that recall up to 10,000 years of history—and accurately, in at least some respects, a study concludes. These oral histories describe changes in the Australian coastline that actually occurred, due to rising sea levels, according to the researchers. “Anything that goes back thousands of years – nearly 10,000 years in some cases – has to be quite exceptional,” said Patrick Nunn, co-author of a report on the findings. He said he doesn’t know of other cultures whose oral histories cover such long time periods. “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,” added Nunn, a geographer at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. “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.” The findings are published in the academic journal Australian Geographer. Nunn and co-author Nick Reid, a linguist at the University of New England in Maine, describe Aboriginal stories from 21 places around Australia’s coastline, each speaking of a time when sea levels were a good deal lower than today. Nunn said present sea levels in Australia were reached 7,000 years ago, so any stories about the coastline stretching much further out to sea had to be older. “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,” he said. “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.” Nunn said he became interested in how stories met science during a long tenure at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji.