Responses to ocean rise: the ancestors’ tales


Climate change challenged communities millennia ago. How they coped can be discerned in traditional stories, passed down for thousands of years. Geographer Patrick Nunn reports.


Sculpture of fish god from Lepenski Vir, likely to have been part of the people’s spiritual responses to flooding.

Mickey Mystique/Wikimedia Commons

Ua mai, the water is rising”, the elderly Fijian man tells me. We are sitting side by side on an upturned boat under the shade of a sprawling casuarina tree, just behind the beach at Vabea Village on Ono Island in the Kadavu group.

It is January, 2019. The sunset promises to be spectacular but my companion appears in a sombre mood. Having lived most of his life on Ono, he has witnessed the gradual changes that have taken place along the island’s coast driven, he knows, by the rising of the ocean.

The beach here is being cut back, he tells me, pointing out the coconut trunks that have been placed along its landward side to try and prevent further land loss. He fears this is not enough and that one day Vabea will suffer the fate of nearby Narikoso Village, which is often awash at high tide these days.

Having no appetite for science, he wonders why God is letting this happen, what the people of Ono might have done to anger Him, or whether some devilry is in play.

We may be sceptical about the causes of contemporary climate change, but only fools deny its visible effects. The ocean surface is unarguably rising, the evidence manifest along most of the world’s coastlines. We grow anxious about the future, about whether we can halt sea level’s rise any time soon or whether, as some scientists say, this is unlikely for a century or more however emissions are reduced.

In the short term we have no choice but to adapt. We build our houses upwards, we artificially replenish beaches, we construct sea defences both natural and solidly engineered. And we hope that the worst will not happen, a view that manifests itself across the frustration-supplication spectrum from furious denial to passive prayer.

Do we imagine that this is the first time humanity has confronted such a profoundly concerning phenomenon? We may, but that is not true.

Coconut trunks and vegetation along the Vabea shoreline in Fiji, intended to prevent further beach retreat.

Patrick Nunn

After the last ice age ended, the ocean surface rose an average 120 metres along almost all the world’s coasts within 10 millennia or so. Landmasses shrunk massively – Australia lost some 23% of its land area, and what is now the conterminous United States became almost a third smaller. Coastal peoples were forcibly displaced, some moving inland, some striking out across the ocean hoping to find unoccupied lands over the horizon.

What did those people think? Were they, like us today, ranged along the spectrum from complacent to alarmed? Did some perhaps suppose that the entire landmasses they inhabited might eventually be submerged? What did they do about it?

You might think we have no clue. After all, because post-glacial sea level ceased rising in most places about 6000 years ago, we would need to get inside the minds of people that long ago.

Yet this is possible because, in several parts of the world where long-standing cultures exist more or less intact, there are stories recalling not only the effects of post-glacial sea-level rise but also – in a handful of places – stories that describe people’s responses. And the degree to which these mirror our own today is remarkable, laying the ground for asking whether or not we might learn anything from our distant ancestors’ experiences.

So, what are some of these stories?

From northeast Queensland, Australia, there are indigenous Aboriginal stories about the time when what is now the Great Barrier Reef was dry land, a condition last attained perhaps 9960 years ago. There are also stories about how (and why) the ocean started to move up over the land, driving its inhabitants inland.

A Gungganyji story reported in the 1930s noted that a man named Gunya (or Goonyah) became so concerned by the apparently unstoppable rise of the sea level that with some of his people he climbed a mountain on top of which they made a huge fire in which they heated boulders that they then rolled down into the rising waters. This, it is reported, “succeeded in checking the flood”.

Other Indigenous stories from Australia recall how people responded to the rise of sea level across what is now the ocean floor seaward of the spectacular Nullarbor cliffs. Fearing the “sea flood” would “spread over the whole country”, stories from the Andingari and Wiranggu peoples recall how “various Bird Women” gathered dense masses of kurrajong roots and arranged these to create a barrier at the base of the cliffs.

This action, it is said, “restrained the oncoming waters”, preventing then from “inundating the country completely”. A different story from the same region recalls how the Wati Nyiinyii people “rushed” to the water’s edge where they promptly began “bundling thousands of [wooden] spears to stop the encroaching water … these bundles were stacked very high and managed to contain the water”.

View of the Bunda Cliffs, edge of the Nullarbor Desert plains in Australia.

Ben Cordia/Wikimedia Commons

In both these places, post-glacial sea level stopped rising about 7000 years ago, meaning that these stories date from at least that time, and have been passed on, largely orally, to reach us today. That in itself is an extraordinary thing to contemplate but it also compels us to wonder why. Why were such stories adjudged so important that they were uncompromisingly passed down across almost 300 generations?

We cannot know, but it is plausible to suppose that the intention was to warn future generations about the instability of the ocean surface, the fact that it once rose and drowned much of the land, before it was stopped. Were such stories intended less as accounts of history and more as tools for empowering subsequent generations? If yes, then all of us might learn something from them.

What is especially interesting about these Australian stories is that they report that people’s actions led to inundation ceasing, something that suggests the stories date from about 7000 years ago when in fact the inundation of the continent’s margins did cease; the ocean surface here reached its present level.

But that was not the case everywhere in the world. Along many of the coasts of northwest Europe, the ocean surface did not stabilise millennia ago, but has been rising more or less continuously since the end of the last ice age. And it seems possible that ancient memories of this, expressed as a failure to halt the rising sea level, are buried in many of the stories of this region’s most ancient cultures.

Take the stories of submerged cities like Ys, in Brittany, and Cantre’r Gwaelod, in Wales, which, like many others of their genre, recall the former existence of a “city” now on the ocean floor, its precise location uncertain. In both these examples, the city was already under threat from rising seas, having presumably evolved from one where there were no coastal defences to one with – for their time – quite elaborate ones.

Even allowing for some crossover of details, the stories recall that Ys and Cantre’r Gwaelod were walled with gates that needed to be shut when tides were high; the failure to do this is blamed for the ultimate inundation of these cities. Crude estimates suggest the submergence of Ys and Cantre’r Gwaelod took place more than 8700 years ago.

If you think these arguments far-fetched, then consider the facts. People occupied Australia and northwest Europe during the past 10,000 years (and more) that sea level has been rising; it is clear that many people must have been displaced by rising sea level, many towns and cities once thought inviolable submerged.

Why should it not be that some memories of these profoundly culture-altering events are preserved? It cannot be because memories cannot be preserved so long; they can. For most of us, our kneejerk scepticism derives only from the difficulties our mind has in rebranding ancient stories as having a factual basis rather than being the entertaining creations we were taught they were.

Today, just as people 7000, 8000 years and more ago appear to have done, we build defences against the rising ocean surface. Yet in contrast, because there are evidence-based scientific explanations about why sea level is rising and what might best be done to stop it, many more people place their trust in secular responses than was likely to have been the case seven millennia ago.

Contemporary scientific understandings of the world at that time plausibly involved – as they do for numerous people today – a blend of secular responses (such as building defences) and spiritual ones. Incredibly, we know what some of the latter many millennia ago may have involved.

Take the stone lines at Carnac, in Brittany, some of which extend for kilometres and involve thousands of menhirs, once regarded as boundary markers or memorials to fallen warriors. The idea of Serge Cassen that these stone lines represent “a cognitive barrier” between the physical and metaphysical worlds intended to halt the disastrous impacts of rising sea level in the Gulf of Morbihan more than 6000 years ago is in keeping with what we are learning elsewhere.

View of part of the Kermario stone lines at Carnac, in France.

Patric Nunn

For example, along many North Sea European coasts, neatly arranged deposits of once-valuable objects such as stone tools, even human remains, may have been intentionally created as votive offerings to divinities to stop the ocean’s rise. Cemeteries may have been intentionally situated on coasts, symbolically stabilising them in the minds of local peoples. Sandstone sculptures of fish gods from Lepenski Vir in Serbia may have been totems intended to prevent inundation.

Even physical barriers, long recognised as useless against the encroaching ocean, may have become symbolic; an example of wooden structures from Flag Fen near Peterborough in the UK was interpreted in this way by Francis Pryor.

In a globally-connected world, challenges to humanity like that of climate change are inevitably framed as global issues – ones that must be understood and framed globally and, by default, tackled globally. And what is wrong with that, I hear you say?

Quite a lot actually, not least because the global position uncritically privileges the understandings of western science and subordinates those of others, including my friend in Vabea struggling to understand sea-level rise as God’s will.

Another issue, currently being widely acknowledged by climate scientists, is that while mitigation of climate change is best tackled globally, adaptation is better tackled locally, given the great diversity of situations represented by the juxtaposition of affected people and environments.

By default, this was the position of people 7000 years and more ago. There was no single explanation, acknowledged in every part of the world, for why sea level was rising. Different cultures would have rationalised their observations in differing ways and these in turn would have determined their responses.

Imagine if this had not been the case. Imagine if affected people in the English Fenlands or the Australian Nullarbor 7000 years ago felt unable to act without direction from their national authorities. Would someone have trudged for weeks or months, even years, to seek that direction, only to be told something completely useless by a person unfamiliar with the local context?

Imagine if the King, upon hearing of his distant subjects’ dilemma, decreed that erecting a statue in his image on a prominent hill would solve the problem. And what if his people did, and it didn’t?

So, one lesson we can take from ancient stories about people’s responses to sea-level rise – at least the responses that worked – is that local residents who understand their local context best are best positioned to design and drive adaptive solutions. Inevitably, as adaptation decision-making becomes more geographically distant and more top-down, it is likely to become less effective.

We can trawl ancient stories for other insights into how we might respond best to contemporary climate change.

I am fascinated by details in the Australian stories about how people feared the ocean might rise across the entire land but also about the desperation implicit in some of the measures taken. Clearly Gunya’s climb up the mountain was not a long-contemplated solution, just as the “rush” of the Wati Nyiinyii to construct their cliff-foot palisades does not suggest it was a long-considered approach.

So perhaps like today, the people in positions of power in those societies prevaricated; maybe they denied the evidence of their own eyes because they recognised that it threatened their vested interests. So maybe it took grassroots action, comparable to modern protests by striking schoolchildren, to drive change.

There is one more clear lesson for today from ancient stories like those of Ys and Cantre’r Gwaelod, which is that long-term sea-level rise can be temporarily resisted – in modern jargon, we can protect our coasts or accommodate the impacts – but in the longer term, it is actually more sage to abandon vulnerable places and occupy others less exposed.

This is a fundamental issue in modern climate-change science. How to persuade coastal dwellers that temporary fixes will not last and that transformational change, however painful, is the only sustainable future option.

My friend in Vabea knows that. His kinfolk in nearby Narikoso are set to be one of the first Fiji communities to relocate to a higher location. He fears that Vabea will not be far behind. He complains about the enormity of the inevitable disruption, but also thanks God that his home is on a high island where at least there are places to which to retreat.

We sit in silence for a while, the sun disappearing behind distant hills. Then unexpectedly he breaks the evening quiet with a great guffaw: “Ha!”. I look at him quizzically. He starts laughing. Then he explains.

“My grandfather,” he recalls, “always used to say that his grandfather was forever saying it was a mistake for our people to move to the coast. That was a time when we lived in the hills, safe from the waves, but then you people came along” – he gives me, the foreigner, a faux glare – “and forced us all down to the water’s edge.

“The old ones, they knew this was a dangerous place, they said not to go, but we had no choice. Here we are and dina saraga – too true – we now discover it is a dangerous place! We should listen to the past.”

Patrick Nunn is Professor of Geography at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia. His latest book is The Edge of Memory: Ancient Stories, Oral Tradition and the Post-Glacial World (Bloomsbury Sigma).
  1. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/287780533_Carnac_-a_cognitive_barrier_An_interpretation_of_stele_rows_in_western_europe_of_the_fifth_millenium_BC_In_the_light_of_ethnological_and_archaeological_data_in_Eurasia%20]
  2. https://www.jstor.org/stable/124839?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
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