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Depiction of a volcano erupting to show what the eruption at Budj Bim could have looked like.           Source: SiriusRzn / Adobe stock

Is the Aboriginal Budj Bim Volcano Tale the World’s Oldest Story?

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Researchers investigating the date of human settlement in Australia have made an amazing discovery. They analyzed geological data in relation to the oral tradition of local Aboriginal people, and it has been proposed that an Aboriginal story about the Budj Bim volcano has a basis in fact, and it may also be the oldest story in existence.

The human occupation of Australia “is the subject of intense debate and is critical to understanding global migration routes,” according to a press release by the Geological Society of America. A lack of archaeological evidence means that only 6 sites dated to 30,000 years ago have been definitively identified. Yet it is commonly believed that the first people that settled in Australia arrived about 65,000 years ago. A team of experts employed “a novel approach to improving understanding of occupation that involves dating key volcanic eruptions,” according to Geoscience.  Their findings were then related to oral tradition and a stone tool to date human colonization of Australia.

The Giant and the Volcano

According to Science Daily , “the strong oral traditions of Aboriginal Australian people have enabled the perpetuation of ecological knowledge across many generations.” Their traditions have preserved the memory of meteor impacts, earthquakes, floods and volcanoes. Scientists examined a story that is told by the Gunditjmara people who live in Victoria, in southeast Australia, concerning local volcanoes as part of their study.

The Gunditjmara have a story of four giants who came to their ancestral homeland. Three left but one remained here and squatted down. According to Science, “his body transformed into a volcano called Budj Bim , and his teeth became the lava the volcano spat out.” This volcano and another 30 miles (40km) away, Tower Hill, was formed by a sudden number of eruptions around 37,000 years ago.

A 19th century drawing of the lake in the crater at the top of Budj Bim.   Source: Eugene von Guerard / Public domain

A 19th century drawing of the lake in the crater at the top of Budj Bim.   Source: Eugene von Guerard / Public domain

The Volcano and Early People

The tale of the giant may refer to the fiery eruption that leads to the formation of the volcano. An archaeologist from James Cool University, Sean Ulm, who did not participate in the study is quoted by Science as saying that “it is an interesting proposition to think about these traditions extending for tens of thousands of years.” However many, including Ulm, are cautious about this because they doubt that a story could have endured for such a long period of time.

There is some material evidence that may back up the myth about the birth of the Budj Bim, volcano. In the 1940s, a stone axe head was found beneath some volcanic rocks.  This indicated that humans were in the area sometime before the volcano erupted. No one is certain how long the Gunditjmara have lived in this part of Australia, but if the myth is based on real events then this could mean that their ancestors may have lived here for at least 37,000 years.

Modern day Budj Bim site in Australia. (cafuego / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Modern day Budj Bim site in Australia. (cafuego / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Dating Volcanoes

Erin Matcham, a geologist, and her colleagues dated the volcanic rocks where the tool was found and some from Budj Bim. They confirmed the age of the volcanoes, by measuring the radioactive decay of the potassium in the rocks. The rocks also indicate that the volcanoes emerged suddenly in a matter of days or weeks, in a somewhat similar way to the story of the giant.

It is possible that the sudden eruptions, which no doubt greatly impressed the locals, led them to develop a story to explain what they had witnessed. Myths were typically used by ancient communities to rationalize phenomena and events. Science reports Matcham as stressing “that her team is not definitively claiming that the Gunditjmara story is really that old.”

World’s Oldest Story?

Researchers believe that Aboriginal stories are very old. This is based on references to sea levels in myths, that have since been proven by science to have occurred about 7000 years old. However, The Gunditjmara story would be many times older than anything currently known and therefore, the local Aboriginals have the “oldest oral traditions in existence,” reports Geoscience.

Australian Aboriginals performing at a culture show in Australia. (Rafael Ben-Ari / Adobe stock)

Australian Aboriginals performing at a culture show in Australia. ( Rafael Ben-Ari / Adobe stock)

Typically, humans are highly mobile but the exception to this is the Aboriginal populations of Australia. There is genetic evidence that shows that they often stayed in the same area for tens of thousands of years. This could mean that the story of the Gunditjmara could have been re-told for thousands of years and thus preserved it for millennia. Members of the local Aboriginal community have welcomed the study as it indicates the antiquity and brilliance of their traditional culture and ancestors. 

Top image: Depiction of a volcano erupting to show what the eruption at Budj Bim could have looked like.           Source: SiriusRzn / Adobe stock

By Ed Whelan

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