Oral traditions, especially contrasted with written history, are typically portrayed as inaccurate. Commenting on native title claims in the US, Simic (2000) made the specific claim: “As a general rule, unwritten legends that refer to events more than 1,000 years in the past contain little, if any, historical truth”. So can preliterate Indigenous languages tell us anything factual about the distant past, or does the transmission of historical facts become inevitably corrupted? Changes in sea levels around the Australian coast are now well established. Marine geographers can now point to specific parts of the Australian coast and know with some confidence what the sea levels were at a particular time before the present. This paper reports on a substantial body of Australian Aboriginal stories that appear to represent genuine and unique observations of post-glacial increases in sea level, at time depths that range from about 13,400–7,500 years BP. This paper makes the case that endangered Indigenous languages can be repositories for factual knowledge across time depths far greater than previously imagined, forcing a rethink of the ways in which such traditions have been dismissed.
18th Conference of the Foundation for Endangered Languages (FEL): Indigenous Languages: Value to the Community, Okinawa, Japan 17-20 September 2014
Proceedings of the 18th Conference of the Foundation for Endangered Languages / Heinrich, P Ostler, N (eds): pp.82-87