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Tasmanian Aboriginal oral traditions among the oldest recorded narratives in the world

Research | Newsroom

New research published in the Journal of Archaeological Science indicates Palawa (Tasmanian Aboriginal) stories recall geological and astronomical events that occurred 12,000 years ago, placing them among the oldest recorded oral traditions in the world.

University of Tasmania researchers were part of a trans-disciplinary team that investigated Palawa oral traditions recorded in the 1830s, which described rising seas flooding the Bassian Land Bridge connecting Tasmania to mainland Australia, and the presence of the bright star Canopus near the South Celestial Pole.

By drawing on topographic data of the seafloor and calculating the position of Canopus in the ancient past due to axial precession, the team estimated that both conditions date back to at least 11,960 years ago.

Astronomer and lead author, Associate Professor Duane Hamacher from the University of Melbourne, said using a scientifically datable natural event – such as a volcanic eruption or meteorite impact – enables researchers to show the integrity of oral traditions can be maintained for thousands of years.

“Current archaeological evidence indicates that humans reached Tasmania at least 40,000 years ago,” Associate Professor Hamacher said.

“Palawa Elders spoke about Moinee being a bright star near the South Celestial Pole at the time rising seas made Tasmania an island. This is the only example in the world of an oral record describing the position of a star as it would have appeared in the sky more than 10,000 years ago.”

Palawa cultural historian, Pro Vice-Chancellor Aboriginal Leadership and co-author, Professor Greg Lehman from the University of Tasmania, emphasised that scientific validation of oral traditions reinforces, rather than supersedes, the cultural authority of Indigenous knowledge.

“Scientific investigation of colonial records that articulate traditional systems of knowledge preservation creates a wonderful multi-disciplinary and cross-cultural way of making our history and our landscape more meaningful in our lives,” Professor Lehman said.

“Physicists and astronomers sometimes struggle to do this alone. This project has profoundly deepened our relationship with history and science by taking Aboriginal traditions seriously.”

Geographer and co-author, Professor Patrick Nunn from the University of the Sunshine Coast, said there were on-going debates about the length of time oral traditions can be passed down while still maintaining vitality.

“Aboriginal Australians developed complex knowledge systems that were committed to memory and passed down through generations via oral traditions,” Professor Nunn said.

“Our research suggests that Palawa oral traditions accurately recall the flooding of the land bridge between Tasmania and the mainland – showing that oral traditions can be passed down more than 400 successive generations while maintaining historical accuracy.”

Historian and co-author, Associate Professor Rebe Taylor from the University of Tasmania, stressed the significance of recognising the endurance of Palawa oral traditions.

“They endured not only millennia, but also the genocide committed by the British in the nineteenth century and the wrongful representation of the Palawa as a so-called 'extinct race',” Associate Professor Taylor said.

The team also included Michelle Gantevoort from RMIT University, Ka Hei Andrew Law from the University of Melbourne, and Mel Miles from Swinburne University of Technology.

Image: Aboriginal knowledge holders share oral traditions with students studying Indigenous Lifeworlds.