This past week geologist Erin Matchan, writing with colleagues in Geology, claimed that the Gunditjmara people of southern Australia preserve the world’s oldest oral tradition, dating back 37,000 years. Being conservative on such things, I find it difficult to accept that claim, since preservation over such long periods occurs nowhere else in the world, and the evidence is suggestive without being conclusive. Matchan alleges—while admitting that she does not have proof—that the Gunditjmara origin story for the Budj Bim (Mount Eccles) volcano records its catastrophic formation over a period of months tens of thousands of years ago. She bases this date on her dating of the volcano’s rocks, which, so far as I can tell, has nothing to do with the oral story since the oral tradition does not describe the formation of a volcano. Previous estimates placed the volcano’s origins around 25,000 BCE.
The best-known version of the Gunditjmara tale, and the one used by most scholars in discussing it, was recorded in the far-away time of 2010 in a book the Gunditjmara wrote with G. Wettenhall, The People of Budj Bim: Engineers of Aquaculture, Builders of Stone House Settlements and Warriors Defending Country:
At the dawn of time, it was the Ancestral Beings – part human, part beast – who brought what was previously barren land to life. At the end of the Dreaming journeys, the Ancestral Being left aspects of themselves behind transformed into part of the landscape. To the Gunditjmara people, Budj Bim’s domed hill represents the forehead of one such Being, with the lava that spat out as the head burst through the earth forming his teeth. In the Dhauwurd wurrung language, budj bim means “high head,” and tung att means “teeth belonging to it”, referring to the scattered red scoria.
This account is a bit of a hybrid. The second half is derived from a word list in a nineteenth century book, and the first half comes from more recent accounts.
The problem is that the use of “lava that spat out,” which does not appear in nineteenth century sources, seems to imply that the story refers to an active lava flow. But the story as we have it today has been influenced by more than a century of geological work on the mountain and the 2004 Australian government heritage designation that tied the mountain as an erupting volcano to the Gunditjmara’s sacred landscape. The government asserted that “the link between the eruption of the volcano and Budj Bim is of outstanding heritage value as a designation of the process through which ancestral beings reveal themselves in the landscape.”
Before 2004, that wasn’t quite what was described. Earlier references merely describe the “scoria cones”—the conical hills leftover from spouting lava—as the “teeth” of the supernatural creature whose head is the mountain. This is what was given by James Dawson in his glossary of terms in his 1881 Australian Aborigines, the ultimate source for the quoted paragraph. This is not very different from other Aboriginal legends explaining the origin of mountains as petrified beings, giants’ ovens, and such. Accounts of local Aboriginal peoples possessing stories of their ancestors witnessing volcanism were not necessarily associated with the giant’s head popping out of the ground.
Geologically speaking, the Budj Bim volcano last erupted 8,000 years ago, so if we assume that the story refers to an actual eruption (as the Australian government and most Australian scholars do), there is no specific reason to associate it with the first formative eruption of 37,000 years ago. It is possible, but definitely unproven. We might just as well claim that the Phoenician story that the Anti-Lebanon mountains were formed from petrified giants preserves a memory of their formation.
As Patrick Nunn discussed in his overstated but not necessarily wrong book The Edge of Memory (2017), there are stories across Australia associating former volcanoes with fire, so it would seem that the more likely explanation is that the stories have an Ice Age provenance, but not one going so far back in time. The Australian government agrees, writing that “There are two areas in Australia where Aboriginal people witnessed volcanism: the area of the younger volcanics of the Atherton Tablelands; and, the younger volcanics in Victoria, which includes Mt Eccles.” This seems confirmed by nineteenth century sources, which quote Gunditjmara informants to the effect that their ancestors had witnessed various eruptions and a tsunami. Dawson recorded an Aboriginal informant telling him that his grandfather had personally witnessed a volcanic eruption in Victoria. Neither of these stories, though, implies witnessing the formation of a volcano sui generis. In 1938, geologist Edmund Gill described the volcano at neighboring Tower Hill as having thrown ash over fossilized human footprints, confirming that humans lived in the area before at least one of the volcano’s eruptions.
There is no archaeological evidence of a human occupation at Budj Bim before about 13,000 BCE, but Matchan wishes to challenge this, citing a report from the 1940s that a stone axe had been found nine feet beneath a volcanic ash layer at Tower Hill. The National Museum of Victoria studied the axe and concluded in a 1944 report that it was between 4,000 and 6,000 years old, based on estimates of the age of the ancient postglacial flood plain on which it sat, estimates derived from studying the geology of the site and the fossil shell remains in the layer. Matchan re-dated the volcanic layer to 37,000 years ago using argon-argon dating. H. F. Wickham offers confirmation of the younger date in his early research from the turn of the twentieth century. He reported the discovery of a dingo skeleton beneath the same volcanic layer. Since dingoes entered Australia around 3,500 years ago, it strongly suggests that the human occupation beneath the volcanic layer cannot be 37,000 years old.
I honestly don’t know what to make of the conflicting lines of evidence, but it seems odd that the argon-argon dating would be 30,000 years different from all of the other lines of evidence previously used to construct a timeline of human activity in the region. But even if we accept all of the evidence in the Geology article at face value, there still is nothing in the oral tradition that demands it refer to the formation of the volcano rather than representing a fairly logical set of conclusions (within the Dreaming framework) about Budj Bim from observable facts.
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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