Rivers of Knowledge

Contemporary Implications of People’s Memories of Millennia-old Geological Phenomena


  • Patrick Nunn University of the Sunshine Coast




Ancient stories, sea-level rise, memory, submerged coasts, adaptation


Ancient stories recalling memorable events can be demonstrated as enduring in recognizable form in oral (non-literate or pre-literate) cultures for several millennia. As explained in the author’s 2018 book, The Edge of Memory (Bloomsbury, London), some of the most compelling of these stories are those recalling coastal ‘drowning’, interpreted in most instances as recalling the rise of sea level following the end of the last Ice Age; some of these stories from Aboriginal Australia can be given minimum ages of 7000-10,000 years ago. Examples are also given of ancient stories from Australia and elsewhere that recall volcanic eruptions and meteorite falls, both of which can be dated with some degree of certainty. This paper extends the arguments in The Edge of Memory to an analysis of stories that appear to recall people’s responses to rising sea level more than seven millennia ago and allow insights into their thinking. It seems clear that today, confronted by a similar phenomenon, we can learn from the actions of our distant ancestors.

Author Biography

Patrick Nunn, University of the Sunshine Coast

Patrick Nunn is Professor of Geography at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia but spent most of his career based in Fiji at the University of the South Pacific where his interests in oral traditions and their antiquity took root.


Cane, Scott. 2001. “The Great Flood: Eustatic Change and Cultural Change in Australia During the late Pleistocene and Holocene”. In Histories of Old Ages: Essays in Honour of Rhys Jones, ed. by A. Anderson, I. Lilley and S. O’Connor, 141–66. Canberra: Pandanus Books.

Cane, Scott. 2002. Pila Nguru: The Spinifex People. North Fremantle, Western Australia: Fremantle Arts Centre Press.

Cassen, Serge. 2009. Exercice de Stèle: Une Archéologie des Pierres Dressées, Réflexion autour des Menhirs de Carnac. Paris: Errance. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0003598x00100031

Clarkson, C., Z. Jacobs, B. Marwick, R. Fullagar, L. Wallis, M. Smith, et al. 2017. “Human Occupation of Northern Australia by 65,000 Years Ago”. Nature 547(7663): 306–310. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature22968

Cohen, Benjamin E., Darren F. Mark, Stewart J. Fallon and P. Jon Stephenson. 2017. “Holocene-Neogene Volcanism in Northeastern Australia: Chronology and Eruption History”. Quaternary Geochronology 39: 79–91. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quageo.2017.01.003

D’Ancona, Matthew. 2017. Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back. London: Ebury Press.

Deur, Douglas. 2002. “A Most Sacred Place: the Significance of Crater Lake among the Indians of Southern Oregon”. Oregon Historical Quarterly 103(1): 18–49.

Egan, J., R. Staff, and J. Blackford. 2015. “A High-precision Age Estimate of the Holocene Plinian Eruption of Mount Mazama, Oregon, USA”. Holocene 25(7): 1054–67. https://doi.org/10.1177/0959683615576230

Flood, Josephine. 2006. The Original Australians: Story of the Aboriginal People. Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin.

Gribble, Ernest R. B. 1932. The Australian Aboriginal. Sydney: Angus and Robinson.

Herring, Stephanie C., Martin P. Hoerling, James P. Kossin, Thomas C. Peterson and Peter A. Stott. 2015. “Explaining Extreme Events of 2014 from a Climate Perspective”. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 96(12): S1–S172. https://doi.org/10.1175/bams-explainingextremeevents2014.1

Hinkel, Jochen, Jeroen C. J. H. Aerts, Sally Brown, Jose A. Jiménez, Daniel Lincke, Robert J. Nicholls, et al. 2018. “The Ability of Societies to Adapt to Twenty-first-Century Sea-level rise”. Nature Climate Change 8: 570–78. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-018-0176-z

Iyengar, R. N., and B. P. Radhakrishna. 2005. “Evolution of the Western Coastline of India and the Probable Location of Dwaraka of Krsna: Geological Perspectives”. Journal of the Geological Society of India 66(3): 285–92.

Jamero, M. L., M. Onuki, M. Esteban, X. K. Billones-Sensano, N. Tan, A. Nellas, H. Takagi, et al. 2017. “Small-island Communities in the Philippines Prefer Local Measures to Relocation in Response to Sea-level Rise”. Nature Climate Change 7(8): 581–86. https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate3344

Kelly, L. 2015. Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: Orality, Memory and the Transmission of Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/cbo9781107444973

Kopp, R. E., R. M. Horton, C. M. Little, J. X. Mitrovica, M. Oppenheimer, D. J. Rasmussen, et al. 2014. “Probabilistic 21st and 22nd Century Sea-level Projections at a Global Network of Tide-gauge Sites”. Earths Future 2(8): 383–406. https://doi.org/10.1002/2014ef000239

Lewis, S. E., C. R. Sloss, C. V. Murray-Wallace, C. D. Woodroffe and S. G. Smithers. 2013. “Post-glacial Sea-level Changes around the Australian Margin: a Review”. Quaternary Science Reviews 74: 115–38. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2012.09.006

McConnel, Ursula. 1930. “The Rainbow-Serpent in North Queensland”. Oceania 1(3): 347–49. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.1834-4461.1930.tb01654.x

McNamara, K. E. 2013. “Taking Stock of Community-based Climate-Change Adaptation Projects in the Pacific”. Asia Pacific Viewpoint 54(3): 398–405. https://doi.org/10.1111/apv.12033

McNiven, Ian J. 2008. “Sentient Sea: Seascapes as Spiritscapes”. In Handbook of Landscape Archaeology, eds. Bruno David and Julian Thomas, 149–57. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Mitchell, J. 1934. “Meteorite Craters: Old Prospectors Experiences”. The Advertiser, 11 January 1934, 1.

Moore, George Fletcher. 1884. Diary of Ten Years Eventful Life of an Early Settler in Western Australia; and also A Descriptive Vocabulary of the Language of the Aborigines. London: Walbrook (facsimile edition 1978 by University of Western Australia Press).

Nunn, P. D. 2018. The Edge of Memory: Ancient Stories, Oral Tradition and the Post-Glacial World. London: Bloomsbury.

Nunn, P. D. 2013. “The End of the Pacific? Effects of Sea Level Rise on Pacific Island Livelihoods”. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 34(2): 143–71. https://doi.org/10.1111/sjtg.12021

Nunn, P. D., and Roselyn Kumar. 2018. “Understanding Climate-Human Interactions in Small Island Developing States (SIDS): Implications for Future Livelihood Sustainability”. International Journal of Climate Change Strategies and Management 10(2): 245–71. https://doi.org/10.1108/ijccsm-01-2017-0012

Nunn, P. D., and N. J. Reid. 2016. “Aboriginal Memories of Inundation of the Australian Coast Dating from More than 7000 Years Ago”. Australian Geographer 47(1): 11–47. https://doi.org/10.1080/00049182.2015.1077539

Piccardi, L., and W. B. Masse, eds. 2007. Myth and Geology. London: Geological Society of London.

Prothero, D. R. 2013. Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Rao, S. R. 1999. The Lost City of Dvaraka. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan.

Roberts, A., and C. P. Mountford. 1989. The Dawn of Time: Australian Aboriginal Myths. Blackwood, South Australia: Art Australia.

Roughsey, Dick. 1971. Moon and Rainbow: the Autobiography of an Aboriginal. Sydney: Reed.

Santilli, R., J. Ormo, A. P. Rossi and G. Komatsu. 2003. “A Catastrophe Remembered: a Meteorite Impact of the Fifth Century AD in the Abruzzo, Central Italy”. Antiquity 77(296): 313–20. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0003598x00092292

Sharpe, Margaret, and Dorothy Tunbridge. 1999. “Traditions of Extinct Animals, Changing Sea-levels and Volcanoes among Australian Aboriginals: Evidence from Linguistic and Ethnographic Research”. In Archaeology and Language I: Theoretical and Methodological Orientations, eds. R. Blench and M. Spriggs, 345–61. London: Routledge.

Smith, W. R. 1930. Myths and Legends of the Australian Aboriginals. London: Harrap.

Thorpe, A., and F. Figge. 2018. “Climate Change and Globalisation as ‘Double Exposure’: Implications for Policy Development”. Environmental Science & Policy 90: 54–64. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2018.09.003



How to Cite

Nunn, P. (2019). Rivers of Knowledge: Contemporary Implications of People’s Memories of Millennia-old Geological Phenomena. Journal of Cognitive Historiography, 4(2), 223–241. https://doi.org/10.1558/jch.38214