Oral Tradition & Indigenous “Myth”

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:

Aboriginal-Stories-Flooded-Lands— Cris

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3 thoughts on “Oral Tradition & Indigenous “Myth”

  1. Bob Wells

    A historical-fiction book I greatly enjoy is “Winds of Change” by Bonnye Matthews. In it she follows the story of a “Shaman” from Eastern Europe at the times of the Neanderthals. The main story line is that the primary purpose of the Shaman is as the “storyteller.” The book follows his choosing his successor and continual training to repeat the stores verbatim. As events happen he, and then his successor, create new stories always with the goal in mind of finding a lesson in the events that serve a purpose for the tribe to explain the events and to increase the harmony, unity and cultural standards of the tribe. The story also has a main function to act as a warning of things done wrong, and actions seen as beneficial to the group.

    Perhaps there were tribes like the aborigines who elevated the storyteller to shamanic heights who dedicated themselves to preserving the stories and the truths they found in them. They were the “wise ones” who had no particular political power but their morality, spirituality and intelligence placed them in a higher position than the others. That allowed them to walk the line between anarchy, democracy and authoritarian government, which made the tribe even more successful. They had the best of all systems without the drawbacks.

    By learning lessons from the past, those tribes maintained themselves as cohesive units over the many thousands of years, and those without storytellers did not. The Storytellers were an evolutionary leap in cultural history. Those that adapted endured, those that did not were short-lived.

    It’s interesting that recorded history backs up the importance of storytellers in nearly every successful civilization. We don’t call them shamans anymore but they still use the magic of technology to shape our culture and tribe.

    Even a grade B story-teller like Ronald Reagan can become president and actors, comedians, filmakers, writers and musicians are the highest paid and most revered members of our tribe.

  2. jaap

    Yes, and when you hear Morgan Freeman’s voice saying ‘I remember the Superbowl of 1959 …’ you can hear a pin drop, can’t you? There is a space here that captivates any human mind on a very deep level. The stories tell you what the world is like, and where you ‘really’ belong. But on our TV we have also comdedians telling us what to think of it, or ridiculing that very thing. If those comedians are very popular, then the politicians they target have a problem. Likewise the Irish shanachies (storytellers, but also a sort of satirists) could make or break any political career. The interests at stake here are enormous!
    ‘As events happen he, and then his successor, create new stories always with the goal in mind of finding a lesson in the events that serve a purpose for the tribe to explain the events and to increase the harmony, unity and cultural standards of the tribe. The story also has a main function to act as a warning of things done wrong, and actions seen as beneficial to the group.’
    And there you have it! New stories cannot be told when the old stories must be kept. There is obviously a flow here, and an inevitability of change. Knowing what’s best for the group has a word: politics!
    Now we must pause and look at the evidence: some stories have been kept for hundeds of generations. Hundreds! Imagine that! That’s something! We are in awe when not a dot or a yota has been altered in the prophets and the Thora for 2500 years. Here we’re talking a tenfold, and we’re not talking manuscripts, but simple word of mouth …
    My question here is: What mechanism, what precept, has enabled some cultures to hang on to information for that long a duration?
    PS: And I’m dying to know if any memory of the Neanderthals shows in any of ‘our’ records …
    PPS: The Irish annals are interesting in this respect: the manuscripts date back to the 1400s, the traditions go back deeper, and the dates go back to a rather fanciful 2000 BC. But I’ll betcha the Fomorians are Cro Magnons!
    PPSS: Was getting into the Superbowl-spirit again. Sorry, won’t happen again! (some hope!)
    PPPSS: the Irish codices speak of a 20-years’ training for students of the Brehon Law. Memory was valued in those days.

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