‘Literacy is tyrannical,’ writes Patrick Nunn, ‘for it encourages us to undervalue our pasts – the knowledge amassed by those countless ancestors of ours who could neither read nor write.’ It’s a punchy, feisty start, and one that is difficult to disagree with. While the modern world is addicted to information-sharing through the written word, the majority of human history has been communicated orally, reinterpreted and embellished, as stories have passed from generation to generation by firelight. Stories of fantastical gods and monsters might seem far-fetched, but that was often necessary to ensure they – and the vital messages those stories contained – were passed on to the next generations.
The majority of Nunn’s book is dedicated to how postglacial sea level rise has been depicted in traditional oral stories. For example, the famous Aboriginal traditional ‘dreamtime’ – which is heavily focused on – reveals highly diverse narratives told by communities spread far and wide across the landmass, everything from a kangaroo carving open the land so the sea could enter, to children being drowned as punishment for taking a musical instrument they were forbidden to touch.
What is perhaps crucially misunderstood is how remarkably elastic the stretches of time in which these ancient stories continue to be told really are. Despite it being thousands of years since the rising sea reclaimed much of the Australian continent, retained Aboriginal knowledge about drowned landscapes fits seamlessly with modern undersea surveys. The depth of traditional knowledge about (and even names for) submerged islands and other features far out to sea is even helping guide marine protection projects around the coastline. Similarly outlandish traditional stories from the UK and France hint at the locations of rumoured sunken settlements such as Ys and Lyonesse. ‘With hindsight there is no doubt that science, especially in its younger days, could have benefited from treating oral tradition and knowledge more seriously,’ notes Nunn.
Stories of witch doctors, giants and gods reveal how indigenous Australians understood the volcano eruptions occasionally seen on the continent. We also briefly dip into what traditional stories can tell us about sunken islands – such as Teonimenu, in the Solomon Islands, whose location is still well known by locals, despite being destroyed by an earthquake and/or tsunami many centuries ago – and long extinct hominids and megafauna, such as Homo floresiensis and the real creature behind the mythical Australian bunyip. While this focus on Australia perhaps prevents a more global analysis of postglacial changes, it does serve as a strong introduction to an area of study which will likely be taken increasingly seriously as the complexity and detail of knowledge retained by non-literate societies becomes apparent.
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