Over the past week I’ve been reading One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark (History of the American West) (2003) by Dartmouth history professor Colin G. Calloway. It is a masterful work, perhaps the single best survey and synthesis of Native American ethnohistory that I have read. One of the outstanding features of Calloway’s writing is his serious treatment and use of oral traditions which in the past have been classified as “myths.”
Kiowas, for example, have oral traditions that distinctly recall major landmarks of their multi-century migration from the mountains of Wyoming to the Black Hills of South Dakota to the plains of Oklahoma and Texas. Apache and Navajo Athapaskans who migrated from the far north into the deep southwest between 1000 and 1600 CE recount “myths” of emerging from cold places where even the days were dark. These well describe Canadian winters and may even hearken back to Beringia. On the Northwest Coast, supposedly mythical oral traditions recall earthquakes and tsunamis that have been archaeologically confirmed as having occurred thousands of years ago.
To this list of American examples, of which there are many more, we can now add Aboriginal stories which accurately recall lands that were flooded by rising sea levels after the Last Glacial Maximum approximately 18,000 years ago. Incredibly, some of these stories or “myths” may be 13,000 years old, with several others having time depths of 9,000 to 7,000 years. In a recent paper, linguist Nick Reid and geographer Patrick Nunn analyzed 18 Aboriginal stories which recall coastal flooding and matched these to geological events. Over at The Conversation, Reid and Nunn recount their remarkable discovery and suggest these Aboriginal stories may be unique for their deep fidelity:
The rise of sea level since the last ice age from 120 metres below present occurred not just around Australia but around the world, inundating significant parts of all continents.
We might expect to find comparable collections of sea-level rise stories from all parts of the globe, but we do not. Perhaps they exist, but have been dismissed on account of an improbable antiquity by scholars adhering to the more orthodox view that oral traditions rarely survive more than a millennium.
Another possibility is that Australia is genuinely unique in having such a canon of stories. That invites questions about why and how Australian Aboriginal cultures may have achieved transmission of information about real events from such deep time.
The isolation of Australia is likely to be part of the answer. But it could also be due to the practice and nature of contemporary Aboriginal storytelling. This is characterised by a conservative and explicit approach to “the law”, value given to preserving information, and kin-based systems for tracking knowledge accuracy.
This could have built the inter-generational scaffolding needed to transmit stories over vast periods, possibly making these stories unique in the world.
While I doubt that the Australian example is unique, I have no doubt that indigenous oral traditions are remarkable repositories of deep history and ancient knowledge. They are not just, and never were, “myths.”
Those interested in the Reid-Nunn paper should check the Daily Mail’s coverage, which has some nice graphics including this map: