Is a story about an ancient volcano the oldest ever told?

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Ricky Joseph

Researchers investigating the date of human settlement in Australia have made an amazing discovery. They analysed 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, told for generations, has basis in fact, and may also be the oldest story in existence.

Australia's human occupation "is the subject of intense debate and is fundamental to understanding global migration routes," according to a press release from the Geological Society of America The lack of archaeological evidence means that only 6 sites dating back 30,000 years have been definitively identified. However, it is believed that the first people to settle in Australia arrived around 65,000 years ago. A team of experts has employed "a new approach to improving understanding of occupation that involves dating key volcanic eruptions," fromaccording to the Society.

The giant and the volcano

According to Science Daily, "the strong oral traditions of Australia's Aboriginal people have allowed ecological knowledge to be perpetuated 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 living in Victoria, southeastern Australia, about volcanoeslocations as part of their study.

The Gunditjmara have a story of four giants who came to their ancestral homeland. Three remained here and one squatted. According to Science, "his body became a volcano called Budj Bim, and his teeth became the lava that the volcano spewed out." This volcano and another 40 km away, Tower Hill, was formed by a sudden number of eruptions about 37,000 years ago.

A 19th century drawing of the crater of Budj Bim, where the oldest story ever told may have originated. (Image: Eugene von Guerard/Public Domain)

The volcano and the first peoples

The giant's story may refer to the fiery eruption that led to the formation of the volcano. A James Cool University archaeologist, Sean Ulm, who was not involved in the study and is quoted by Science as saying, "it's an interesting proposition to think about these traditions that span tens of thousands of years." However, many, including Ulm, are cautious about this because they doubtthat a story could have lasted such a long period of time.

There is some material evidence that may support the myth about the birth of Budj Bim, the volcano. In the 1940s, a stone axe tip was found under some volcanic rocks. This indicated that humans were in the area some time before the volcano erupted. No one is sure how long the Gunditjmara have lived in this part of Australia, but if the myth is basedin actual events, that could mean your ancestors may have lived here for at least 37,000 years.

Dating volcanoes

Erin Matcham, a geologist, and her colleagues dated the volcanic rocks where the tool was found, 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 appeared suddenly in a matter of days or weeks, somewhat similar to the giant's story.

Australian Aborigines performing at a cultural show in Australia (Rafael Ben-Ari/Adobe Stock)

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 stressing "that his team is not definitively stating that the Gunditjmara story isreally that old."

The world's oldest story?

Researchers believe that Aboriginal stories are very old. They are based on historical references in myths, which have since been proven by science to have occurred. However, the story of the Gunditjmara would be the oldest currently known, and therefore local Aborigines have the "oldest oral traditions in existence," the Society reports.

Typically, humans are highly mobile, but the exception is the Aboriginal populations of Australia. There is genetic evidence showing that they often remained in the same area for tens of thousands of years. This could mean that the story of the Gunditjmara could have been retold for thousands of years and thus preserved for millennia. Members of the Aboriginal communitylocal welcomed the study because it indicates the antiquity, the brilliance of their traditional culture and ancestry.

Written by Ed Whelan at Ancient Origins. All rights reserved .

Ricky Joseph is a seeker of knowledge. He firmly believes that through understanding the world around us, we can work to better ourselves and our society as a whole. As such, he has made it his life's mission to learn as much as he can about the world and its inhabitants. Joseph has worked in many different fields, all with the aim of furthering his knowledge. He has been a teacher, a soldier, and a businessman - but his true passion lies in research. He currently works as a research scientist for a major pharmaceutical company, where he is dedicated to finding new treatments for diseases that have long been considered incurable. Through diligence and hard work, Ricky Joseph has become one of the foremost experts on pharmacology and medicinal chemistry in the world. His name is known by scientists everywhere, and his work continues to improve the lives of millions.