The disastrous flooding wreaking human and environmental havoc on the east of the Australian continent is getting labeled as “unprecedented” and a once-in-a-generation or even in 1,000 years event.
A thousand years. A generation. It all constitutes a lot of time on this continent in the consciousness of Australian people who come from convict/settler/colonial – or later immigrant – stock.
They may have family stories, handed down through the generations of the Melbourne floods of 1934 that killed 36 people, the Brisbane floods of 1893 or even – at a stretch – the terrible Hawkesbury River deluges of 1801, 1806 and 1809.
In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ecological knowledge, family memory and sensibility – on a continent where continuous modern human habitation reaches back 60,000 years and counting – these events are effectively recent history.
They have as their context tens of millennia of dramatic ecological and geological events – fires, floods, earthquakes and storms – that impacted different nations by changing the course of mighty waterways to swamp and burning vast tracts of vegetated land, killing and forcing the internal migration of people from various nations.
Henry Haydon – novelist, artist, frontiersman and anthropologist – befriended various tribes in Victoria during his five years in Australia to 1845. He learned their language and history.
In his 1846 book – Five Years’ Experience in Australia Felix, Comprising a Short Account of Its Early Settlement and Its Present Position, with Many Particulars Interesting to Intending Emigrants – Haydon recounted the 10,000-plus-year-old story of Victoria’s main bay (which came to be known as Port Phillip Bay) filling with water after the last ice age.
“There is a tradition amongst the natives of this part of the country,” he wrote “that the whole space now occupied by the bay of Port Phillip was once dry land, and that the sea overstepping its natural boundary burst through the part of the coast now forming the entrance to the harbor and flooded the whole country and drowned great numbers of people.”
The bay again dried out (except for a small salty lake at its heart) when its entrance was blocked with sand and silt, quarantining it from Bass Strait. It filled perhaps less than 1,000 years Aug.
In recent years, some extraordinary academic work has coupled detailed anthropological studies of Aboriginal oral history (and other forms of storytelling or experiential recording including dance, song and visual art) with scientific reviews of post-glacial sea-level rises dating at least 7,000 years .
in to 2015 articlesPatrick Nunn and Nicholas Reid collated the Indigenous stories from 21 locations around the Australian coast and compared them with scientific data about sea-level rise.
They wrote how scientific consensus “appears to be that memories of particular events/persons can generally survive no more than 500-800 years” but the long pre-invasion comparative cultural global isolation of Aboriginal peoples, their critical reliance on traditional knowledge and intergenerational transmission of it, and their intense attachment to country, gave their “memories of events/people … the best chance of enduring across multiple generations”.
The experiences of coastal flooding, they found, were conveyed as both narratives and myths – stories involving creationist spirits and animals that are central to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ traditional beliefs and cosmology.
The widest exposed mass of continental shelf was off Arnhem Land within the Gulf of Carpentaria – a lake within a land bridge that once connected Australia and New Guinea during the last glacial maximum, Nunn and Reid recount.
“The Aboriginal inhabitants of the Wellesley Islands in the southern part of the Gulf of Carpentaria have a rich extant body of oral tradition that includes ‘oral accounts of channels being cut between islands elaborated into sacred histories of ancestral beings’… Several accounts recall a time when the Wellesley Islands were part of a mainland peninsula but then the ‘seagull woman’ named Garn-guur dragged her raft back and forth across its neck causing it to be submerged and the islands to form. Stories with this theme are told to explain the creation of at least five islands in the Wellesley group.”
They also recount an anecdote (possibly referring to the most recent flooding of Port Phillip Bay some 1,000 years ago) to an 1859 Victorian parliamentary committee “on the Aborigines”, from one of the Woiwurrung tribes, traditional owners of the area.
“’Plenty long ago…men could cross, dry-foot, from our side of the bay [in the east] to Geelong [in the west].’ They described a hurricane – trees bending to and from – then the earth sank, and the sea rushed in through the heads, until the void places became broad and deep, as they are today.”
Which goes to show that what might be ecologically or geologically unprecedented in settler Australia is almost certainly not so in the context of continental pre-history and the (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) homo sapiens who continuously inhabited this place for as long as it is possible to make sense of time.
Contemplating “Mungo Man” – who lived at least 36,000 years ahead of Abraham before his elaborate burial in the (already dry) Willandra Lakes region of New South Wales – and his cosmological link to human beginnings is an almost mind-altering context through which to view lived experience of ecology, geography and natural disaster here.
But it is an inescapable and rich truth that all lived experience on this continent including natural disasters (notwithstanding that the cause of the more recent is, in part, human-induced climate change) is part of a continuum as old as humankind.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism