Oral traditions about sea-level rises: Aboriginal cultural transmission over great time-depths

Presented by Associate Professor Nick Reid

11am-12pm Wednesday 26 November 2014

Arts Lecture Theatre 3, UNE

This paper assembles a substantial body of Australian Aboriginal stories that touch on sea-level change. Some are straightforward descriptions of sea level rise events, others attribute inundations to the acts of ancestral beings or heroic figures. All however describe either places once visible being lost to sight, or places once reachable on foot becoming reachable only by swimming or paddling watercraft.

There is a general absence of stories describing the opposite, the lowering of sea levels exposing land that was previously underwater. If these oral traditions are taken as describing factual sea level rise, they appear to describe events falling between 13,000 yrs and 7,000 years BP.
The oral transmission of the accurate descriptions of known historical events across such time depths not only demands a rethink of the ways in which such traditions have previously been dismissed, but it also stands out as unprecedented anywhere else in the world.

This invites a number of questions, including: 'What features of Australian Aboriginal societies have facilitated such stable transmission?', and 'Are there implications here for our understanding of the dynamics of the PamaNyungan expansion?'

About the speaker

Nick Reid is an Associate Professor in the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New England. His main linguistic specialisation is the study of Australian Aboriginal languages of the Daly River region (NT). He is also currently engaged in some collaborative work with Patrick Nunn looking at the use of scientifically derived sea level rise chronologies as a way of dating Aboriginal oral traditions about coastal inundation around the Australian coastline.