Eye-witnesses call from millennia past


The ancient stories of indigenous people preserve memories of geologic catastrophes over thousands of years, says Patrick Nunn.


A member of the Klamath people, looking out over Crater Lake, the creation of which is enshrined in their oral traditions.

A member of the Klamath people, looking out over Crater Lake, the creation of which is enshrined in their oral traditions.

Edward S. Curtis/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Instinctively you might think that if we - humanity that is - could not read or write, then we would have difficulty remembering how to do things. You are right, of course, particularly when it comes to complicated tasks such as building Large Hadron Colliders or even organising a sports tournament, but perhaps we should not uncritically rush to such a judgement.

Research is showing increasingly clearly that pre-literate societies, in which no-one read or wrote, were capable of accumulating vast bodies of knowledge and passing these on in intelligible form for thousands of years.

When the Klamath people of Oregon, US, were first encountered by Europeans, they recorded stories about the terminal eruption of the massive volcano – later named Mt Mazama by geologists – that once towered over the landscape where iconic Crater Lake now lies.

The stories described the sounds and the nature of this spectacular eruption, leaving us in no doubt that the Klamath must have witnessed it. Until comparatively recently, the community passed on such knowledge only orally. Mt Mazama is now known to have disappeared from the Oregon landscape about 7600 years ago, leaving us to wonder how such stories could endure so extraordinarily long.

This is not an isolated example. From all around the coast of Australia – a land area about the same size as the conterminous United States – we find 22 groups of indigenous stories recalling a time when the ocean surface was much lower, shorelines were further out to sea (sometimes by hundreds of kilometres), and places that are today offshore islands were joined to the mainland.

Most of these stories can only be memories of the time, after the end of the last Ice Age, when the sea level across the entire planet was rising as a result of land-ice melt. Around Australia, this process ended about 7000 years ago, meaning that the stories must have endured at least this long, transmitted orally across some 300 to 400 generations to reach us today in a form that allows little uncertainty about what they recall.

The rock art of the San people in South Africa enshrines stories that have been told for thousands of years.

The rock art of the San people in South Africa enshrines stories that have been told for thousands of years.

EcoPic/Getty Images

The existence of such ancient stories raises many questions. Why did the people telling them evidently consider it so important that they be preserved? How did such memories reach us in intelligible form from across such a great expanse of time? And does the existence of such stories suggest that there may be others of similar antiquity that are extant? Let’s answer each in turn.

The question about why stories were preserved is easiest to answer. In the case of ancient tales of volcanic eruption, it was all about reducing the risk exposure of future generations.

It is much the same today. Most countries use precedent to understand the nature of natural hazards to which they are exposed, and enact plans, both proactive and reactive, to reduce their inhabitants’ exposure. So, in the past, groups like the Klamath related their experiences of Mt Mazama’s death throes to subsequent generations so they might avoid that place because, however placid it might appear, it was known to be dangerous.

Yet what about stories of a time when the sea level was lower?

In Aboriginal Australian societies, as elsewhere, history gave people a sense of identity. And for people living from the land, knowledge about how its limits and possibilities had changed were important to survival, especially in harsh environments like those of dry Australia.

This is not unique. The San people of South Africa appear to know stories that have endured several thousand years.

For many, the more troubling question is how such people were able to relate so many of these stories in considerable yet unerring detail over such long time periods. It is troubling because for many of us today, memories and the understanding they bring us are almost wholly dependent on writing.

Consider telephone numbers. If we did not have directories or lists of contacts produced automatically, how many numbers could we store in our heads? Not many, you might say, with a wry grin. But then consider how that situation might be different if there was no alternative.

If you absolutely needed to, you might be able to store even a small telephone directory in your head. Thus, we should not rush to judge the abilities of pre-literate societies by our own.

People in such societies clearly felt the need to accumulate bodies of defining knowledge, in fields like history and geography, as well as more practical information that was considered key to survival.

It is likely that the transmission of this knowledge became ritualised. Special times of the day were set aside for it, in much the same way as traditional storytellers in more recent times, such as the conteurs of Brittany in France, were hosted around summer bonfires by rural communities eager to hear their culture-defining stories.

But more than simply words, ancient stories were also communicated through performance, through dance and song, supplemented by other aides-mémoires such as rock art. It even seems plausible that today’s art, performance and fictional narrative all have their roots in the pragmatic concerns of our ancestors about the survival of their bloodlines.

Australia's indigenous people embody a narrative tradition that may well be unbroken for 10,000 years.

Australia's indigenous people embody a narrative tradition that may well be unbroken for 10,000 years.

Ben Tweedie/Corbis via Getty Images

Finally, given that science can prove – as far as this will ever be possible – that human memories of particular events in particular societies have endured for more than 7000 years, perhaps even more than 10,000 years in the case of some of the Australian “dreaming” stories, is it possible that other stories of similarly great antiquity lurk obscured in the written or oral archives of many of the other long-existing world cultures? It seems likely.

Then you might ask why do we not know about them? Perhaps the main reason is that researchers have traditionally tended to dismiss the possibility that stories of great antiquity might exist, not least because of what was once considered the inherent implausibility of such a thing being possible.

Most anthropologists would be sceptical if you suggested that a particular oral tradition might have lasted more than 1000 years. But things change when science makes it possible to precisely determine the age of a particular event recalled in oral tradition. It is difficult to deny that the Klamath have kept alive their memory of Mt Mazama for any less than 7600 years, the precise age that geologists have calculated for its terminal self-destroying eruption.

Yet, more than just a kneejerk scepticism about the possible longevity of oral traditions, most of us suffer from a condition of which we are unaware – what might be called the “arrogance of literacy”.

This is the idea that, because we are literate today, because we are so dependent on reading and writing for the acquisition and communication of information, we cannot readily conceive of the importance of orality in pre-literate societies or its potential relevance to our own.

Yet for more than 99% of the 100,000 years or so that modern humans have perhaps been using language, information was encoded and passed only orally. Perhaps only a tiny fraction of this information has ever been written down.

So maybe it is time to consider whether we can yet retrieve any more of this knowledge from pre-literate sources. Are there written records of this knowledge that we have dismissed, perhaps because it has been dressed up in the language of myth, yet which provide valid memories of events thousands of years ago? I am sure they are. And perhaps we owe it to ourselves, as members of the same species, to recover and understand these ancient stories before they become forever lost.

Patrick Nunn is Professor of Geography at the University of the Sunshine Coast (Australia). Just published, his latest book is The Edge of Memory: Ancient Stories, Oral Tradition and the Post-Glacial World (Bloomsbury Sigma), in which the points raised in this article are elaborated.
  1. http://dreamtime.net.au/
  2. https://gsa.confex.com/gsa/2014AM/finalprogram/abstract_249252.htm
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