Linking Geological Events to Aboriginal Oral Tradition and Stories

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Genetic research from 2016 showed that the oldest existing human civilization can be linked to one location, with carbon dating pointing to (at least) a 50,000-long existence in Australia. It is now believed that they were the first Homo sapiens “explorers”, who sailed out of Africa and across the ocean.

In light of this new information, researchers have gained new perspectives about Aboriginal culture. One of them is that the culture’s ancient quality and traditional focus on the environment opens up a possibility that actual major geological events have been described in Aboriginal oral tradition and stories. 

The Story Of Budj Bim

Budj Bim, formerly known as Mt. Eccles, is an extant volcano and part of the Newer Volcanics Province which stretches through southwestern Victoria, covering an area of 15,000 square kilometers (5,800 sq miles) and featuring 400 shield volcanoes and volcanic vents. They had formed from the Late-Pleistocene to Holocene, making some of them the youngest volcanoes on the continent. 

An 1860 lithographic print by Eugene von Guerard entitled Crater of Mount Eccles (Victoria).  Public domain via MediaWiki Commons.
An 1860 lithographic print by Eugene von Guerard entitled Crater of Mount Eccles (Victoria). Public domain via MediaWiki Commons.

The main features of the landscape around Budj Bim are the Tyrendarra lava flows which stretch towards the sea, forming the area’s trademark wetlands. The wetlands were utilized by local  Gunditjmara people to form ancient elaborate stone-walled aquaculture systems that are now recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site

Also, Budj Bim is an important mythological figure to Gunditjmara. They believe that  Budj Bim, which translates to ‘High Head’, is the landscape feature that outlines their creator, and a part of their central creation myth.

The story goes something like this: 

The Great Creator had sent four Creator Beings in the form of giants that appeared in the landscape, in the secret sacred location of the Stony Rises country. Three Beings strode out to other parts of the land, but one crouched in place and transformed to peaks Tappoc, Kolorer and Budj Bim. The Being’s teeth and blood became the lava that spilled over the landscape and created the wetlands. So, the Gunditjmara had witnessed the Creator Being reveal himself.


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Is there a connection between myth and geologic history?

Of course, the peaks mentioned in the tale exist in real life and were later called Mt. NapierMt. Rouse, and Mt Eccles, respectively, by Western explorers. 

Although the creation of myths is sometimes triggered by real historical events, for a long time it was considered almost impossible that this Gunditjmara creation story could have been an actual testimonial of an actual geological event.

However, while it is not yet certain, the likeliness that the story is not simply a myth, but a metaphorical testimony, have just increased.

The estimates of the Budj Bim eruption first guessed it had occurred between 6,000 and 27,000 years ago. However, more precise dating techniques had shown that the eruption took place more than 30,000 years ago

For a long time, it was believed that humans couldn’t have inhabited the place for more than 13,000 years, thereby missing the eruption by at least 20,000 years. However, in 1947, archaeologists found a stone ax near the neighboring Tower Hill volcano – beneath the volcanic rocks. What that meant is that the ax – and the existence of humans who left it there – pre-dated the eruption which covered the object with lava that turned to volcanic rocks. 

Other researchers have recently raised the possibility that shells and burnt stones surrounded by cemented sand at Moyjil, a coastal spot in Warrnambool, below the Tower Hill, could be the evidence of human activity that stretches as far as 120,000 years in the past. It was just that the exact age of the rocks was still a mystery.

Now, a new study published in Geology pinpointed that the Budj Bim eruption that created the peaks took place around 37,000 years ago. The team used argon-argon radiometric dating, which examines the presence of gas argon in lava rocks and the radioactive decay of potassium-40 into argon-40. David Phillips, the head of the University of Melbourne’s School of Earth Sciences, says that argon radiometric dating is much more accurate than carbon-dating methods used previously.

What’s even more interesting, the clues suggest that the peaks could grow tens of meters high in a matter of days to months. 

A sudden, violent eruption could have made a great impression on the people, who we now know were living in the area at the time. The event itself and other significant environmental effects that followed (e.g., the creation of swamps) could sprout something so culturally significant as the central creation myth.

Sean Ulm, an archaeologist at James Cook University, Cairns, who was not involved with the study said that “It is an interesting proposition to think about these traditions extending for tens of thousands of years.” 

Still, he and other researchers believe that we should refrain from hard conclusions at this point since no other oral stories are believed to have survived for so long, even among Aboriginal tales which are already some of the oldest known in the world.

There is one more feature working in favor of the new Budj Bim hypothesis. Unlike many other human populations that migrated constantly, they seem to have occupied the same place for as much as 50,000 years – as the study of ancient hair samples from 2017 suggests.  

That, I think, could help explain why stories might have been so well preserved for so long,” says Patrick Nunn, a geographer at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Maroochydore, and a co-author of a study that found that 21 communities around Australia have been independently passing down a story describing a sea-level rise event for around 7000 years.

Could it be possible that the Budj Bim tale is as much as five times older

The evidence is mounting, but more is still needed to prove this intriguing proposition. Nevertheless, these new clues help rethink the scientific significance of ancient oral traditions and deepen our perspectives of indigenous communities that keep them alive. 

Resources:

The Study:

Matchan, E.L., et al. 2020. Early human occupation of southeastern Australia: New insights from 40Ar/39Ar dating of young volcanoes. Geology; vol. 48 (4): pp. 390–394. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1130/G47166.1

Tobler, R., et al. 2017. Aboriginal mitogenomes reveal 50,000 years of regionalism in Australia. Nature vol. 544, pp. 180–184(2017) https://www.nature.com/articles/nature21416

Articles

DNA Study Finds Aboriginal Australians World’s Oldest Civilization. History Channel.23 Sep 2016 https://www.history.com/news/dna-study-finds-aboriginal-australians-worlds-oldest-civilization

Indigenous Australians most ancient civilisation on Earth, DNA study confirms. The Guardian. 21 Sep 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/sep/21/indigenous-australians-most-ancient-civilisation-on-earth-dna-study-confirms

Indigenous History, Portland Tourist Association. http://www.visitportland.com.au/indigenous-history/

Is an Aboriginal tale of an ancient volcano the oldest story ever told? Science Mag. 11 Feb 2020 https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/02/aboriginal-tale-ancient-volcano-oldest-story-ever-told#

Volcanoes in Victoria reveal fresh evidence of eruptions 37,000 years ago. ABC News. 26 Feb 2020 https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-02-26/study-dates-victorian-volcano-that-buried-a-human-made-axe/11991290


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