Australian Aboriginal Tale Might Be the Oldest Story Ever Told

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A 19th-century drawing of the volcanic crater that this story was about. Eugene von Guerard [Public domain]/Wikimedia Commons

In science, we don't often give much credence to witness accounts that are told years after the event they describe, for the simple fact that human recall is flawed. Evidence needs to be more reliable than the feebleness of memory. But now startling new research might force us to reconsider our skepticism of ancient storytelling, reports Science.

New volcanic evidence suggests that a tale that's been passed down through countless generations by the Australian Aboriginal Gunditjmara people might be the oldest true story that's still being told, dating back 37,000 years.

The Gunditjmara have long told of four magnificent giants who gave life to the continent. Three of these giants traveled to other parts of Australia, but one of them stood still and transformed into a volcano called Budj Bim, a lava-spewing mound that birthed the land. The tale also speaks of other poetic events, such as dancing trees — possible references to how a landscape shifts during an eruption.

That volcanic mound is still called Budj Bim to this day in honor of Gunditjmara heritage, and the tale has long been considered an ancient one. But until now, no one knew just how ancient it was.

Putting a date on Budj Bim

Lake Surprise, Budj Bim ‐ Mt Eccles National Park, Victoria, Australia
Budj Bim, also known as Mount Eccles, is an extinct volcano in southwestern Victoria. Budj Bim is the Gunditjmara name and it means 'High Head.'. Dhx1 [CC0]/Wikimedia Commons

Geologist Erin Matchan at the University of Melbourne thought she might be able to date the tale if she could date the eruption. So, she collected volcanic rocks at Budj Bim and subjected them to the well-established dating technique of measuring the radioactive decay of potassium-40 into argon-40 over time. To her surprise, the date came back far earlier than previously estimated: 37,000 years ago, give or take about 3,000 years.

This volcano was also a type that can grow from almost nothing to peaks tens of meters high in a matter of days, so it certainly would have left an immediate impression on anyone around to witness it. It was truly a landscape-altering event worthy of a creation myth.

"It is an interesting proposition to think about these traditions extending for tens of thousands of years," said Sean Ulm, an archaeologist at James Cook University, Cairns, who was not involved with the work.

It might seem impossible for such a story to survive for so long via word of mouth, even if immortalized in a mythology, but some other ancient Aboriginal tales have held up to scrutiny as well. For instance, throughout coastal Australia there are common stories about rising sea levels, which describe events that would have happened roughly 7,000 years ago, according to geological evidence. That's a far cry from 37,000 years, but if tales can survive for thousands of years, why not tens of thousands?

There's also good reason to believe that the Gunditjmara have lived continuously in this region for a very long time, at least 13,000 years. As Matchan points out, though, there's evidence of human occupation here since before the eruption at Budj Bim. Whether these people were still Gunditjmara or the ancestors of the Gunditjmara is unknown, but of course, stories can be passed between cultures as well. The Gunditjmara don't have to be the original witnesses of the eruption in order to be the caretakers of the tale.

"We in the West have only scratched the surface of understanding the longevity of Australian Indigenous oral histories," said Ian McNiven, an archaeologist at Monash University.

Dating the volcano, not the story

Matchan has cautioned against jumping to conclusions, though, as the abstract for the research, published in the journal Geology, explains. Dating the volcano is not the same thing as dating the story. It's certainly possible that this tale doesn't even describe an eruption at all. Or maybe it describes another eruption that occurred much more recently, or maybe it's just a symbolic eruption that never even happened. Human imagination is certainly far more expansive than real events can encompass.

Even so, it's a reminder that oral history is a powerful tool humans have used throughout our existence to remember the past, and that we'd be foolish to ignore it entirely as we reconstruct history through science. There are clues that our ancestors have left us, however imperfect, that can help us better comprehend the long arm of yesteryear. That crucial link to our past can only be broken if we stop listening.