This week I want to deviate slightly from our typical posts on astronomy. As you see in the title, we also cover the field of Geomythology, which is the study of geological phenomena inspiring oral traditions. The term was coined by Dorothy Vitaliano, a geologist at Indiana University, in 1968. The word "mythology" is derived from the Greek "mythos", meaning 'story' (or in some cases 'word') and "logos", meaning 'word' in the form of speech. Thus, mythology can be considered "spoken stories". There is a long-standing debate regarding the nature and purpose of myth, and associated theories of myth vary significantly between academic disciplines. We draw from arguments that myths can serve as oral records of natural events and that these records can be elicited by modern science to understand or model historic natural events. During the twentieth century, the use of myth to explain geological events was viewed with scepticism by the scientific community, as there was little physical evidence to support the hypothesis. However, in the 21st century, physical evidence is helping geomythology gain new ground as a legitimate discipline and not a fringe science. The first major peer-reviewed work on geomythology is "Myth and Geology", edited by Piccardi & Masse (Figure 1), which provides the theoretical foundation of the discipline and serves as the methodological basis of our work in geomythology.
Figure 1: The book Myth and Geology, Issue 273 - Special publications of the Geological Society of London
Many oral traditions use natural events or landforms to illustrate a moral point, sometimes including warnings to future generations. On 26 December 2004, such an example was witnessed by the world as an earthquake off the north-western coast of Sumatra induced a tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean, killing thousands (Figure 2). Some indigenous peoples survived the tsunami because of information contained in their oral traditions. These groups, including the Moken people of Thailand and Indigenous Andaman Islanders, possessed stories that told of great waves that would "eat men" and that these waves would come when the sea rapidly receded. Their stories told them that to survive they must immediately get to high ground. Their adherence to these stories saved their lives. The only group of Indigenous Andaman Islanders that suffered heavy casualties had been converted to Christianity! This suggests that such events occurred in the past and were significant enough to be incorporated into story lines that lasted long periods of time. These stories contained information and warnings about natural catastrophes that were crucial to the survival of the community.
Figure 2: The 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. The Andaman Islands in the vertical island chain between Thailand and India, extending north of Sumatra (the epicenter of the earthquake that triggered the tsunami). Form the image, you can see these islands were severely hit by the tsunami. Image credit.
Coastal Australia has been volcanically active in the past, although it is quiet today. Oral traditions of volcanic eruptions exist from Queensland to Victoria, raising questions about the length of time oral traditions can survive. I present two accounts here. The first, and one of the most well-documented examples of geomythology in Australia, are the stories describing the volcanic eruptions that formed the Eacham, Barrine, and Euramo crater lakes in Queensland, which formed more than 10,000 years ago by hot water erupting from the earth (Figure 3). An Aboriginal elder told a scientist that when the volcanoes erupted, the area was covered in Eucalypt scrub as opposed to the current rainforest. This was later confirmed by an analysis of fossil pollen found in the silt of these craters, which showed the current rainforest is only 7,600 years old. Before that, it was Eucalyptus scrub. The Australian Heritage Commission includes these stories on the Register of the National Estate and within Australia's World Heritage nomination of the wet tropical forests as an "unparalleled human record of events dating back to the Pleistocene era".
Figure 3: Painting by Warren Canendo illustrating the Ngadjonji belief that the sacred serpent Yamani used to travel through underground tunnels that connected the four crater lakes, Lake Eacham (Wiinggina), Lake Barrine (Barany), Lake Euramo (Nuta) and the Mt. Hypipamee Crater (Naypa Naypami).
Similarly, Native American stories describe the eruption of Mount Mazama, which formed Crater Lake in Oregon. Sandals excavated under Mazama ash have been radiocarbon dated at 6,500 years old, showing the area was inhabited at the time of eruption. Stories from South America suggest Indigenous cultures not only witnessed volcanic eruptions, but that the descriptions of these events remained in the oral tradition for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.
The second account is from Victoria and describes an earthquake, volcanic eruptions, a tsunami, and even mega-fauna:
"The aborigines have a legend which may have had some foundation in reality. They aver that "long ago" a great water (tidal wave) came to Leywhollot (Portland), but as the beach there was too low to restrain it, it rolled on through the Nine-mile forest, devastating the country, and destroying all animal life. It, however, did not reach the summit of Yayah (Mount Eccersly), where some aborigines were then encamped; and they alone of a numerous tribe were left to tell the dismal tale. The legend states that prior to the advent of the wave Wombriknik (Scott's Waterhole) was a great lake; and Wangot (Oak Bank) the haunt of great birds, probably the dinornis. At that time Yallok (Crawford River) was a great arm of the sea; and Banbangil (Mount Vandyke) rose from the plain in one night, and Pyrtpartee (Mount Mistake) leapt up a day or two after. Palawarra (Heywood) was a great swamp, and Benwerrin (Mount Richmond) was on fire. There were great wild beasts in the country then, and at Namburnburn (Ettrick) there were some that the blackfellows dared not encounter. The first blackfellows, the legend asserts, came from where the sun sets, across an isthmus, which the tidal wave destroyed; and when Mount Gambier (Figure 4) begins to burn, and the earth to shake, the tidal wave will come again."
Figure 4: The "Blue Lake", Mount Gambier, South Australia (2004).
The discipline of geomythology is slowly growing. So far, we've only published a couple of papers on the subject (below), both of which deal with meteorite impacts, although more papers are in queue, including one on aurorae and one on volcanoes. Stay tuned!
Hamacher, D.W. & Norris, R.P. (2009), Australian Aboriginal Geomythology: eyewitness accounts of cosmic impacts? Archaeoastronomy, Volume 22, pp. 60-93.
Hamacher, D.W. (2011), Meteoritics and cosmology among the Aboriginal cultures of Central Australia. Journal of Cosmology, Volume 13, pp. 3743-3753.