Tasmanian Aboriginal oral traditions among the oldest recorded narratives in the world: UniSC News

University of Sunshine Coast News

New research published in the Journal of Archaeological Science suggests Palawa Aboriginal stories from Tasmania recall geological and astronomical events that occurred 12,000 years ago, placing them among the oldest recorded stories in the world.

Professor Patrick Nunn from the University of the Sunshine Coast formed part of a trans-disciplinary research team led by the University of Melbourne, investigating Palawa oral traditions recorded in journals in the 1830s. The project also engaged with members of the Palawa community as part of ongoing research into their oral traditions.

The accounts described rising seas flooding the Bassian Land Bridge connecting Tasmania to mainland Australia and the presence of the bright star Canopus near the South Celestial Pole.

By drawing on seafloor data and calculating the position of Canopus in the ancient past, the team estimated that both occurrences date back to at least 11,960 years ago.

Professor Nunn said by investigating geographical events contained within a story – like the submergence of a land bridge – historical sea levels and modelling could be used to trace its antiquity.

“Indigenous Australians developed complex knowledge systems that were committed to memory and passed down through generations via oral traditions. The Palawa traditions referred to how their ancestors were ‘emigrants from a far country’ who reached Tasmania on land and ‘the sea was subsequently formed’,” Professor Nunn said.

“Our research suggests the last time it was possible to walk across the Bass Strait was at least 11,960 years ago, but more likely closer to 12,425 years ago.

“This demonstrates Palawa oral traditions have been passed down more than 470 successive generations while maintaining their historical accuracy.”

While Professor Nunn explored the bottom of the ocean for historical clues, lead author of the research and astronomer Associate Professor Dr Duane Hamacher from the University of Melbourne looked to the sky.

By identifying and mapping the movement of stars mentioned in Palawa oral traditions, he was able to reconstruct a picture of the night sky contained within them and the last time it would have appeared that way.

“Palawa elders spoke about a bright star called Moinee near the South Celestial Pole at the time rising seas made Tasmania an island,” Dr Hamacher said.

“This is the only known example in the world of an oral record describing the position of a star as it would have appeared in the sky more than 10,000 years ago.”

Palawa cultural historian and Pro Vice-Chancellor Aboriginal Leadership from the University of Tasmania, Professor Greg Lehman, emphasised that scientific validation of oral traditions reinforces, rather than supersedes, the cultural authority of Indigenous knowledge.

“Scientific investigation of colonial records that articulate traditional systems of knowledge preservation creates a wonderful multi-disciplinary and cross-cultural way of making our history and our landscape more meaningful in our lives,” Professor Lehman said.

“Physicists and astronomers sometimes struggle to do this alone. This project has profoundly deepened our relationship with history and science by taking Aboriginal traditions seriously.”

Historian and co-author, Associate Professor Rebe Taylor from the University of Tasmania, stresses the significance of Palawa oral traditions.

“They endured not only millennia, but also the genocide committed by the British in the nineteenth century and the wrongful representation of the Palawa as a so-called ‘extinct race’,” Associate Professor Taylor said.

The team also included Michelle Gantevoort from RMIT University, Ka Hei Andrew Law from the University of Melbourne, and Mel Miles from Swinburne University of Technology.

Click here to read more about Professor Nunn’s research exploring the geographic history contained within the oral stories of Australia’s First Nations.

The narrative information cited in this article comes from published sources, and UniSC acknowledges with respect and gratitude the insights of the Indigenous Australians who sustained these narratives for thousands of years across hundreds of generations.