Is an Aboriginal tale of an ancient volcano the oldest story ever told?

Long ago, four giant beings arrived in southeast Australia. Three strode out to other parts of the continent, but one crouched in place. His body transformed into a volcano called Budj Bim, and his teeth became the lava the volcano spat out.

By Colin Barras Feb. 11, 2020 – Archaeology

“Now, scientists say this tale—told by the Aboriginal Gunditjmara people of the area—may have some basis in fact. About 37,000 years ago, Budj Bim and another nearby volcano formed through a rapid series of eruptions, new evidence reveals, suggesting the legend may be the oldest story still being told today.

The study raises a provocative possibility, says Sean Ulm, an archaeologist at James Cook University, Cairns, who was not involved with the work. “It is an interesting proposition to think about these traditions extending for tens of thousands of years.” But he and others urge caution, as no other stories passed down orally are believed to have survived that long.

It’s not clear how long the Gunditjmara have lived in the southwest corner of what is now the Australian state of Victoria. Until now, the oldest accepted evidence for human occupation dates back no more than about 13,000 years.

But geologist Erin Matchan at the University of Melbourne says that in the 1940s, archaeologists reported finding a stone ax near the region’s ancient Tower Hill volcano. The ax shows humans lived there before the eruption because it was found buried beneath the volcanic rocks.

Now, Matchan and her colleagues have dated those rocks and those of Budj Bim, 40 kilometers to the northwest. The dating method—which relies on the well-established technique of measuring the radioactive decay of potassium-40 into argon-40 over time—suggests both volcanoes formed about 37,000 years ago. What’s more, Matchan says both seem to be of a style that can grow from nothing to peaks tens of meters high in a matter of days to months.

The sudden dual eruptions may have made a big impression on the humans who were living in the area at the time, perhaps sparking the story of the four giants, the team reports this month in Geology. There have been no other large volcanic eruptions in the area in the intervening years that could have provided inspiration for the stories, Matchan says. Still, she stresses that her team is not definitively claiming that the Gunditjmara story is really that old.

Aboriginal tales are already among the oldest known. In 2015, Patrick Nunn, a geographer at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Maroochydore, co-authored a study suggesting 21 communities around Australia have independently kept alive stories describing an episode of sea level rise that drowned parts of the coast. Nunn thinks those stories might be about 7000 years old. The Gunditjmara story would be more than five times as old.

Increasing evidence also shows that humans on many continents migrated far and wide during the past several thousand years. That means the people living in a given area today are not necessarily related to those who lived there tens of thousands of years ago. But a 2017 study of ancient hair samples suggested Australia may be an exception to this rule: many Aboriginal Australian populations appear to have occupied the same place for almost 50,000 years. “That, I think, could help explain why stories might have been so well preserved for so long,” Nunn says.

“We in the West have only scratched the surface of understanding the longevity of Australian Indigenous oral histories,” says Ian McNiven, an archaeologist at Monash University, Clayton, who is also cautiously open to the story’s deep antiquity.

Damein Bell, CEO of the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation, says the Gunditjmara community welcomes the new study, which highlights the deep links they have with their country. “As with all First Nations around the world, our stories, heritage, identity and survival are connected to our traditional homelands and waters,” he says. Bell says the Gunditjmara already suspected their story had been kept alive by their ancestors for a very long time, but they appreciate any scientific evidence that can provide a sense of exactly how long. “We’re always amazed with … new technologies that prove the brilliance of our ancestors.”

Photo: A 19th century drawing of the lake in the crater at the top of Budj Bim.