Australian Professor Claims Myth of Giants Emerged from Ancient Efforts to Explain the Effects of Climate Change
I’m not one for just-so stories. There is a place for speculative explanations of history when those speculations can be used to help us explain evidence and, more importantly, look for new evidence that can help to prove the claim right or wrong. But in many cases, these just-so stories are simply modern assumptions and guesses projected into the past and asserted to be true. Such is the case with Australian professor Patrick Nunn, who teaches geography at the University of the Sunshine Coast. In a blog post for The Conversation later picked up by Cosmos magazine, Nunn tried to explain why world mythologies feature a widespread myth of gigantic humans.
His explanation makes just about zero sense to me, but it forms part of his new book The Edge of Memory: Ancient Stories, Oral Tradition and the Post-Glacial World, due out in two weeks’ time in Australia and in January here in the United States.
Let’s start by outlining his argument. He believes that the myth of giants originates after the melting that ended the last Ice Age, when sea levels were lower and humans spread out across the globe by walking across areas that soon after sank beneath the waves, isolating populations with barriers of water, which he describes as aqueous gaps in the continuity of land.
As sea level rose at the end of the last ice age, crossing these gaps became increasingly difficult; the routes taken would have been more circuitous, perhaps possible only through a combination of wading and walking. As sea level continued rising, the gaps eventually became impassable for people on foot – and perhaps eventually too lengthy to readily cross with watercraft – but the memories of when things were otherwise lingered on in the stories of the peoples on either side of the water gap.
To make the argument a little clear: Nunn believes that old stories talked about heroes and gods walking between locations now separated by water, so storytellers turned the heroes into giants to explain how they could step across the bodies of water. This change was apparently more plausible and conservative than either imagining that they had boats or admitting that water filled what once was land.
This explanation has very little to recommend it. First, it predicates the discussion of giants on it being restricted to peoples who lived in a coastal environment or in areas now made up of islands. This explanation would not work in many of the areas where stories of giants were found in historic times. For example, the Spanish recorded legends of giants among the peoples of the Andes, which were never under water. Tales of giants are also found in the southern and western United States among the Native peoples of that region, where again Ice Age sea level changes did not impact the area. Nor does the explanation account for the fact that “giants” come in many sizes, from the completely mythical creatures the size of mountains (or, actual mountains, as Sanchuniathon reported) to only a foot or two taller than normal humans.
The most famous giants of all, the Nephilim of the Bible and their kin, have no association with coastlines or water passages, though they were, according to later legend (though not, strictly speaking, the Biblical text), the cause of Noah’s Flood, often associated in modern lore with the end of the Ice Age. Indeed, according to the book description for Edge of Memory, Nunn looks at Noah’s Flood in light of “verifiable facts” and “geologic evidence.”
Beyond this, the explanation assumes that storytellers would create stories of giants but not of a more obvious solution—boats. Why is it more logical to remodel a traditional story to insert giants tall enough to straddle bodies of water but not to insert a boat? The oldest boat in existence dates back to 8000 BCE, and there is circumstantial evidence that some type of boat was in use for hundreds of thousands of years, to judge by the peopling of areas that have not been connected to Eurasia by land during the human experience, such as Australia, Flores, and Crete.
Nunn specifically cites the Polynesian stories of giants that could uproot islands as evidence of his theory, but this is absurd for two reasons: First, because Polynesia has always been made of islands and always required boats, rendering the “bridging the gap” hypothesis unnecessary, and second, because Polynesia was only populated in relatively recent times, with stories that date back only to around 900 BCE, outgrowths, scholars suspect, of the older faiths of the Southeast Asian peoples who gave rise to the Polynesians around 3000-1000 BCE. Some parts of the Pacific weren’t settled until around 1300 CE.
Nunn suggests that he believes that Ice Age legends were shaped around 4000 BCE—some six thousand years after the fact, an impossibility. I don’t know where he got the date from—the Neolithic perhaps? Or the Indo-European migration? If he has the number wrong and meant 9700 BCE, when the Younger Dryas ended, then his analysis would be controversial, since little of Ice Age beliefs remains, though some believe that Aboriginal Australians maintain memories of the Ice Age coastlines of that continent, including the presence of former islands now beneath the waters. I’m going to assume that this is what is in the back of Nunn’s mind since he was instrumental in making this claim back a few years ago. And wouldn’t you know it, he said at the time that Australia’s coastlines reached their present state around 4000 BCE, some 6,000 years after the melting began.
This is one of those cases where I feel like the claimant has overstepped possibility after becoming convinced of an idea. He believes that Aboriginal Australians preserve Ice Age landscape memories, and therefore he has begun to interpret everything through that lens. An equally plausible claim could be made that everywhere giants are found in myth, they originated in the discovery of large animal bones, particularly Ice Age animal bones, that were misinterpreted as those of giant humans, as continued to happen from Antiquity down to the present. The truth is probably something else entirely, and that things which are big and which are small are simply part of the human imagination, and originated in fantasy (or even visions in altered states of consciousness) rather than rational inquiry.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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