10,000 Years of Oral Narrative

Just off the coast of Australia, a few miles west of Perth, lie three small limestone islands. Today they’re a popular destination for boat trips and air taxis, but a local Aboriginal tribe tells stories of a time when these three isles were connected to the mainland by lush forest. One day, the stories recount, those trees caught fire. They 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.”

Along Australia’s Southern coast, another Aboriginal community tells an old story about marital strife, in which an angry ancestral figure called Ngurunderi chased his wives across the tribe’s territory until they sought refuge on a piece of land known today as Kangaroo Island. To punish his wives, Ngurunderi caused the seas to rise and turned his wives into large coastal rocks. The last time anyone would have been able to travel to Kangaroo Island on foot was about 10,000 years ago, when sea levels were about 100 feet lower than they are today.

That time span begins to enter the realm of the mythic. Few, if any, man-made things survive that long, let alone an oral anecdote about the environment. Does that mean, then, that these stories are just that – fairy tales of the kind we all grow up with? Nicholas Reid and Patrick Nunn think not. A linguist and geologist, respectively, Reid and Nunn collected similar stories from all over Australia. Matching each of them successfully to actual historical changes in the continent’s shoreline, they argue that these narratives originate in fact – and that they must, therefore, have been passed from generation to generation for many thousands of years, all without the aid of being written down.

Throughout human history, oral narratives have been an important way for communities to pass knowledge from generation to generation. Many of the oldest epics known to us today – that of Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, or the Mahabharata, to name just a few – lived long lives as oral poems before they were ever committed to paper. The blend of flowery language, rhyme, and meter so typical of these stories helped narrators commit them to memory, and brought them to life for communities with every telling. In this way, oral poetry long served as a central repository of shared beliefs, values, and knowledge for pre-literate societies around the world. They offered a sense of intergenerational continuity, and helped communities understand their history and their world.

The oldest epics known today are a few millennia old, but none come close to the age Reid and Nunn suggest for these Aboriginal tales – the team estimates most of them to be between 8,000 and 12,000 years old, to match the sea level changes they purportedly recount. This stretch of time would be unprecedented, but not necessarily impossible. If the knowledge conveyed in a story is considered important enough to a community’s sense of identity, for example, its narrative is likely to keep being told and retold from generation to generation. And if a society places more value on accuracy than on creative innovation, its tales are less likely to evolve much in their content. Reid and Nunn argue that both are true of Aboriginal cultures:

Reid says clans have very specific mechanisms for teaching people to tell oral histories, as well as tasking others to ensure the orator tells stories accurately. For instance, when children are told tales by their parents, they are tasked with quizzing the details and cross-checking them with their grandparents. “People take these relationships very seriously,” says Reid. “The beauty of the relationship is that it is cross-generational and that provides a kind of scaffolding that’s very successful at keeping stories accurate, not succumbing to a [game of telephone] effect.” This feature of oral tradition appears to be specific to Australia.

The possibility that these stories are truly as much as 12,000 years old does not yet prove their factuality. Investigating whether these tales originate in truth will involve analyzing the likelihood that disparate Aboriginal tribes across Australia would have all simply conjured mythic stories about rising sea levels – or that a single story would have been shared and adapted by societies across the continent. Reid and Nunn believe it’s more plausible that each community would have witnessed such flooding in their own territory and considered it momentous enough to pass the experience on to their descendants. They argue that the narratives are too similar across groups who are unlikely to have exchanged tales with one another; and too specific to local contexts to have been borrowed from elsewhere.

How do we know that these stories are authentic? We suggest that because they all say essentially the same thing, it is more likely that they are based on observation. All tell of the ocean rising over areas that had previously been dry. None tell stories running the other way – of seas falling to expose land. The huge distances separating the places from which the stories were collected – as well as their unique, local contexts – makes it unlikely that they derived from a common source that was invented.

In the end, the factuality of stories like these may be impossible to determine, and the definition of ‘authenticity’ may be up for debate. With narratives this old, the distinction between ‘myth’ and ‘fact’ may have simply faded, or disappeared altogether. Myth can become a means to convey the emotional force of long-ago experiences, events witnessed by ancestors so old that they’ve become more abstract than real. In turn, historical snippets or location-specific details may be woven into mythic stories to aid their resonance with listeners. But whether you choose to class these tales as fact or fiction, the research done by Reid and Nunn does suggest that oral narratives should never be dismissed as irrelevant to our understanding of local histories. However you define “truth,” such stories can be repositories for cultural knowledge, beliefs, and shared experiences across massive stretches of time – they become the stuff of a community’s long-term continuity.

This paper makes the case that endangered Indigenous languages can be repositories for factual knowledge across time depths far greater than previously imagined … forcing a rethink of the ways in which such traditions have been dismissed.

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