Ancient folktales recount verifiable environmental events.
Examining stories handed down from nonliterate cultures, Nunn (Geography/Univ. of the Sunshine Coast; Vanished Islands and Hidden Continents of the Pacific, 2017, etc.) mounts compelling evidence to argue that these tales offer valuable insight into dramatic climate changes. He criticizes scientists who quickly dismiss such tales rather than attend to their significance for our understanding of the Earth’s geological history. The author homes in on “a time from the coldest part of the last great ice age about 20,000 years ago, to 1,000 years or so ago,” during which knowledge and observations were communicated orally. He asserts that “the edge of our memories today lies 10 millennia or so in the past,” regretting that much of what modern humans experienced before that time—for almost 200,000 years—has been lost. Nunn focuses most extensively on stories about “coastal drowning along the Australian fringe,” northwest Europe, and the edge of the Indian subcontinent to glean insight into massive flooding that occurred as the Earth warmed after the last great ice age. Melting glaciers caused the sea level to rise: The coast of northern Australia, he reports, may have been “submerged every day during the more rapid periods of postglacial sea-level rise,” fueling stories about inundation as well as the disappearance of some plants and animals. Sometimes these tales took the form of descriptions of transformed environments, sometimes of myths that attribute environmental changes to the actions of nonhuman or superhuman beings. Besides flood narratives, Nunn looks at folktales recording earthquakes, crashes of meteorites, the disappearance of islands, and volcanic eruptions. For example, for 7,000 years, the Klamath Indians handed down a story about the creation of Crater Lake, in Oregon, that began as an eyewitness account of the eruption of the volcano Mt. Mazama. Other tales have led archaeologists and geologists to locate submerged towns or land bridges that explain human and animal migration.
A surprising, well-supported perspective on Earth’s distant past.