How old can an oral tradition be? How long can a social memory exist?
Surely much depends on the stability of the social organizations that sustain them. But can we imagine a story surviving through generations over 7,000 or even 30,000 years?
Scientists studying certain species of palm trees curiously surviving in Central Australia may have coincidentally confirmed Aboriginal stories that must date back at least 7000 years.
It had until recently been thought that palm trees in Central Australia were survivors from Gondwanaland, from before the time Australia split off from what is now Antarctica, South America and Africa, and a time when Australia was covered in rainforest.
Months of genetic testing by University of Tasmania ecologist David Bowman and a Japanese team eventually confirmed that trees that had long been thought to date from Gondwana ancestors are not nearly so old at all. They in fact date from the time humans inhabited the continent.
The results led him to conclude the seeds were carried to the Central Desert by humans up to 30,000 years ago.
Professor Bowman read an Aboriginal legend recorded in 1894 by pioneering German anthropologist and missionary Carl Strehlow, which was only recently translated, describing the “gods from the north” bringing the seeds to Palm Valley.
Professor Bowman said he was amazed.
“We’re talking about a verbal tradition which had been transmitted through generations possibly for over 7,000, possibly 30,000 years,” he said.
“Just an amazing coincidence that we’d independently concluded that the seeds had been transported and then subsequently we discover an Aboriginal legend is exactly what we found scientifically.
“The concordance of the findings of a scientific study and an ancient myth is a striking example of how traditional ecological knowledge can inform and enhance scientific research.
“It suggests that Aboriginal oral traditions may have endured for up to 30,000 years, and lends further weight to the idea that some Aboriginal myths pertaining to gigantic animals may be authentic records of extinct megafauna.” (From the ABC news article: Research findings back up Aboriginal legend on origin of Central Australian palm trees. See also the First Nations website collation of the recent and earlier articles.)
Nature has published these latest findings.
Compare my earlier post, Universal Floods and Australian Dreamtime Myths, where scientific research appears to have similarly confirmed other Aboriginal oral legends about a great flood that must be “at least 6,500, if not 10,000, years old.”
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7 thoughts on “The Oldest Oral Traditions in the World”
There is an American Indian tradition that might date back 50,000 years, to before the time people left Central Asia and crossed the Bering Strait.
Kangaroo island is an island off the southern coast of South Australia which was connected to the mainland about 8,000 years ago with the now flooded River St. Vincent Valley between the 2.
The sea level rose and drowned the river valley and created the island – that is a geologically documented event.
All this is described in a story told by the Ngarrindjeri starring their dreamtime hero Ngurunderi.
Here is a ‘suitable for the internet’ version of the story:
I’ve listened to elders [without a capital] tell variations of this story, all which are aware of the geologic history.
And, of course, by the logic of the criterion of embarrassment it must be true – in my version the wives are laughing at Ngurunderi because he can’t catch them [they escape to become a well known star constellation] and as the story illustrates his failure and humiliation it therefore must be true.
Oral tradition around 8,000 years old.
Totally amazing ….authenticating the stories of peoples [sometimes v marginalised] is extremely gratifying …which is what has happened here. Or vindication or justification – call it what one will.
It certainly puts into perspective materialism [ the modern type] and the anti intellectualism that goes with it , often .
Having just b/c acquainted with Tudor Parfitt’s work which involves following up on ostensibly outlandish claims [eg. the Lemba tribe in Africa claiming to have Jewish roots….being in fact a lost tribe of Israel! – this which I must pass by quickly ] the post struck a strong chord .
Yeah. On the other hand, some dates or seeds could have drifted in with the tide. Or possibly in animal or bird droppings.
Most cultures have big flood stories. Because most countries have an occasional flood.
Who is this guy? He reminds me of a typical biblical archeologist, proving giants existed.
David Bowman is Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of Tasmania. His original research findings (the result of research conducted in collaboration with scientists from Hiroshima University, Kyoto University and the Australian National University) was published by The Royal Society (Proceedings B) (DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2012.0103) in 2012. This original publication made no reference to any Aboriginal traditions or legends.
His original article examined several possibilities, including migration of seeds through birds, and concluded this was less probable than Aboriginal migration as an explanation. The reason was the isolated pocket of these palm trees in Central Australia (Finke National Park), one thousand kilometers from another pocket towards the north (Roper River).
The primary argument against birds or bats is that it is unlikely they would have traversed the 1000 Kms without leaving intermittent patches of the seeds. On the other hand,we know that Aboriginals began migrating into the central regions of Australia from about 30-35,000 years ago and this coincides with the dating of the palm trees enclave.
It was only in the year following the publication of the research in 2012 that overturned the conventional wisdom that the trees were relics from the much earlier geologic time that the Aboriginal story of the origins of the palm trees in the Finke River area was published and came to the attention of Bowman:
This is not a case of a scientist setting out to prove Aboriginal myths. Quite the reverse. The coincidence with the story was discovered only after quite independent research had been done. I heard Professor Bowman interviewed on local radio and the lesson he was reiterating from the experience is the need for researchers to always be listening to the local knowledge.
The trees under investigation in Central Australia are in box (a) (Finke River region) and compared with those in the north — box (b) (Roper River). It had long been thought these were different species but Bowman’s team established they were in fact the same species.
As for the flood stories, the evidence for the Australian aboriginal story in my earlier post (and for several others in the world) does point to major catastrophic large-scale events that do appear to relate to dramatic sea-level rises globally. A detailed look at the evidence is much more interesting than I had long assumed. I might post on it one day, but not for a while yet.
Hello Mr Godfrey, I’m a reader at your blog and wanted to know what are your thoughts on Glenn’s criticisms of Dr Carrier’s work on resurrection. Recently, my apologist classmates gave me a couple of links criticizing Dr Carrier’s take on the resurrection. Can you just go over them and tell me what are your thoughts on them and the comments made on those 2 articles and tell me your thoughts on them? I’ll post them below. http://www.rightreason.org/2011/richard-carrier-on-the-resurrection-part-1/
Thanks. I’ll be hoping for a reply soon.
Not interested. I cannot understand why a “reader of this blog” would have any interest in asking me about Carrier’s take on any miracle. A reader of this blog would know my views on miracles and the resurrection and that I have no interest, let alone time, in reading lengthy posts arguing about them. A reader of this blog would know I have no interest in engaging in debates with apologists or attempting to argue points of religious belief with anyone. And a reader of this blog ought to know that your comment violates our comment policy.