The Australian edition of National Geographic carries a rather grandiose claim that an Aboriginal tribe in Australia accurately preserved the memory of the eruption of a local volcano for 230 generations spanning 7,000 years. This article is one of dozens that appeared in Australian and British media in the last few days after the University of Glasgow issued a press release on the subject last Friday. It would be wonderful if this were true, but the article left me feeling uneasy, not least because the story in question was first recorded in 1970, some 6,900+ years after the fact, and long after most members of the Gugu Badhun would have been familiar enough with volcanism that Western education could conceivably have influenced any story told at that time. Indeed, by 1970, the Gugu Badhun language was dying, and a linguist studying them at the time found no fluent speakers of the language and only a dozen or so partial speakers.
Just for the fun of it: As I worked on this story last night and this morning, I lost access to all Australian government websites on my laptop due to some unspecified connection issue, though my smartphone connected just fine. The Down for Everyone website informs me that the connection issue is not just me. It made it a little difficult to research Australian resources, so some of the links are to Google caches. Sorry about that.
Let’s back up and take a look at the claim. According to National Geographic, Dr. Benjamin Cohen of the University of Glasgow, made the claim in an academic article about Kinrara, an extinct volcano in northeastern Australia currently represented by a water-filled crater. Here is how National Geographic summarized the story:
The Gugu Badhun people have been retelling the story of a huge explosion that rocked the Australian landscape for 230 generations. After new evidence, experts believe the 7,000-year-old epic is true.
As we shall see, pretty much nothing in the above quotation is actually true.
Here is where the circular reasoning comes into play: Cohen claims that the above story is 7,000 years old because he has dated the volcano’s last eruption to 7,000 years ago (plus or minus 2,000 years), which he calculated as being 230 +/- 70 generations ago. The National Geographic writer then claimed that the 5000 BCE date for the story was a given that confirmed the date of the eruption.
Obviously, I wanted to know more, so I looked up the original academic paper. Cohen wrote the piece with three coauthors, and it’s entitled “Holocene-Neogene Volcanism in Northeastern Australia: Chronology and Eruption History.” It was published this April in Quaternary Geochronology after being published electronically back in January, and fortunately the full text is available in my local university library’s online databases. (Thanks, EBSCO!) As the journal title implies, Cohen and his colleagues are geologists and not anthropologists. The purpose of the article was to date the eruptions of the Kinara volcano, not to establish Aboriginal knowledge of it.
It is not inconceivable that the story goes back that far since other studies have suggested that Aboriginal people preserve memories of the Ice Age coastlines of Australia. However, the fact that this story was first recorded in the 1970s and doesn’t seem to show any details that couldn’t have been gleaned from basic science and disaster movies leaves me a bit uneasy. I’d want to see the methodology that helps to establish why this story is genuinely ancient, but the article doesn’t seem too helpful on the that point, starting from the premise that the story is old and applying it from there: “Verbal traditions of the Gugu Badhun Aboriginal people contain features that may potentially describe the eruption of Kinrara. If the traditions do record this eruption, they would have been passed down for 230 ± 70 generations – a period of time exceeding the earliest written historical records.” This apparently gave them little pause. They offered the usual qualifications, but did not go beyond them. Just wait until you see the actual stories that they elided into this supposedly genuine account.
Here are our authors confessing that the “epic” described above is actually a conflation of two separate and seemingly unrelated stories:
One Gugu Badhun tradition recounts the earth being on fire along the watercourses, while a second tradition tells of a time when a witch-doctor made a pit in the ground and lots of dust in the air; people got lost in the dust, and died (Hoolihan and Sutton, 1970). We speculate that these features could be consistent with the geology of Kinrara, which erupted from a crater (Fig. 3e), with ash-rich explosive activity, lava fountaining, and pyroclastic eruptions (Stanton, 1993). The mention of people dying in the dust (potentially volcanic ash) may be significant.
This assumes quite a bit, and I am dumbfounded how National Geographic developed an “epic” about an “explosion” from these sentences. The reporter was careless at best.
Note that these are two separate events, one describing a fire and the other a dust storm. (Presumably, having experienced bushfires, Aborigines know the difference between dust and smoke.) The stories are seemingly unconnected, and the entire interpretation rests on the question of whether the “pit” in the ground is the caldera left by the volcano 7,000 years ago. It is unclear why a forest fire that followed the path of rivers—where trees and plants are thickest—should be uniquely volcanic; or, frankly, why we should assume that an apparently poetic reversal of the elements—water into fire—should be taken as a true-life account. The authors answer that “severe bushfires or dust storms would not be restricted to a single pit or just the watercourses.” And yet, myths need not follow the logic of reality, especially if you have given yourself license to abandon parts of the story in order to fit it to a preconceived narrative. Beyond this, there is no reason given to connect these two mythic events, which need not be assumed to have a factual foundation. Why do we get to put together two different stories and claim they are part of one volcanic eruption?
I wish I could offer a greater analysis of the underlying stories, but they are not found in published accounts. The citation leads to tape recordings produced in 1970 by Peter Sutton, then a graduate student working on a Master’s thesis on the Gugu Badhun language. The tapes are held in an Australian library and not accessible to me, and the account does not seem to appear in Sutton’s thesis. I know from that thesis and Cohen et al.’s citation, however, that the stories excerpted for the article were told by Richard Hoolihan, a Gugu Badhun with partial knowledge of the ancient tongue. Based on the library catalog entries for the two separate tapes Cohen et al. cite (tapes 70/2 and 70/10), I know that the two stories come from discussions separated by two weeks: a January 7, 1970 discussion of “the conflict between the Pheasant and Bronzewing Pigeon, told in English by Richard Hoolihan” and a January 24, 1970 story with the clearly anachronistic title “How the Lava Came to Be,” another English-language myth. The very use of the word “lava” by Hoolihan shows that he or Sutton was imposing Western vocabulary, categories, and knowledge onto the narrative since, as Cohen et al. make clear, there was no lava to give name to in Queensland, where there were no active volcanoes in historic times. For Hoolihan to tell the story of lava, he must have run whatever the older narrative layer was through a Western framework. Tellingly, “lava” does not appear in Sutton’s dictionary of Gugu Badhun vocabulary.
The long and short of it is that Cohen and his colleagues concocted their own story from two separate ones, assumed it was ancient, left out important qualifiers that cast doubt on the antiquity of the underlying narratives, and then tried to match it to events on the ground.
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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