Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Memories of the Great Flood - The flooding of the Continental Shelf

At times when the water was rising rapidly, a rate of up to 1 m/week has been suggested, at this rate the Nullarbor Plain lateral territory could be lost at the rate of 2-3 km in a human lifetime. At this rate a favourite hunting place could be lost in single season. The result of this would have been territories lost which would result in the alteration of subsistence regimes, and places of spiritual significance and religious pathways all being lost. It is suggested by Cane1 that when the sea was rising rapidly as much as 5 km of land could have been lost across the northern coasts of the Australian continent in a year.

Cane1 suggests that the more than 500 myths about great floods may have their basis in the rising seas as the sea level rise was a global phenomenon and must have had a big impact on human populations around the world, possibly leading to the inclusion of a cultural memory in the myths. If this is the case it could explain the Australian narratives and possibly the story in the bible of Noah's flood, as it would also have affected the people of the Middle East as much the early Australian settlers. According to Cane1 these narratives invariably account for sea level rise in the context of land lost that existed before the flood. They all account for the rise of the sea level  in the context of the previously existing land , they are myths of palaeoenvironmental context that concern less about the formation of the sea as it is seen and understood in the present and more about how the sea changed through antiquity. Joined together they form a body of religious law that Cane1 says must be 6,500 years old, and possibly up to 10,000 years old, which makes them among the oldest known parables in the world.

The accounts from Australia are typically associated with the flattest parts of the country, the places were the greatest impact of the rising sea was felt, as well as being the areas where the rising water could most easily be seen: the Gulf of Carpentaria, coastal Arnhem Land, the Bassian Plain, The Nullarbor plain and Rottnest Island (Balme & Morse, 2006). The formation of the Gulf of Carpentaria is described as occurring when a raft was dragged across the land which made a channel that filled with seawater. There are 2 mythological accounts on Groote Islandt that relate to the Tjukurrpa of the desert that reveal connections to the desert when the Gulf of Carpentaria was land. The formation of Elcho Island was said to have resulted from a stick being pushed into the ground after which the sea rushed in and separated the island from the mainland. Long periods of rain are said to have caused the sea to rise and this threatened to extinguish fire that had been maintained by mythological beings.

On the southern coast of the continent the story tells how children found a sacred object on the Bassian Plain causing the land to give way and  the sea rushed in with the loss of many lives. The narrative of the formation of Port Phillip Bay describes the area as being a flat, fertile plain that was inundated when a large storm blew up and the sea flooded in. Between Fleurieu Peninsula and Kangaroo Island Backstairs Passage was formed when Ngurunderi, a being from the Dreamtime, ordered the water to rise and drown 2 of his wives who had run away from him. A great flood is spoken of in the stories of the formation of Spencer Gulf. Near the Swan River a great fire swept across the adjacent ancient plains which caused the earth to crack allowing the sea to flood in which isolated Rottnest Island from the mainland (Flannery, 1994).

On the Nullarbor Plain all the Tjukurrpa relate to the emergence of the sea. The Wati Kutjara myth ends abruptly where the 2 men went into the water, via a soak at the Head of Bight. The two men became pillars in the sea, 1 of which recently fell over. According to another story fire is almost extinguished by the rising water, as occurred in the analogous account of the formation of Joseph Bonaparte Gulf, while the aunt of the 2 men who saved it sat cross-legged pushing up a barrier attempting to stop the sea rising any further. Another story describes how a large number of mythological birds, that embodied the people of the Sun and the Shadow, crossed the desert to build a rampart of spears. The desiccation across the desert is related in the first part of the story, the second part concluding with attempted containment of the great flood following it. According to Cane1 the story of the attempts to stop the rising sea is replete with consequences and desperation, with people and animals dying, land being lost and country submerged. It is a story of distress that the attempts to stop the water would fail. There are also other sequential components in the story describing the re-watering of the desert, of rock holes being filled and the emergence of underground water that supports human life at the present. A story of prevention and rectification, that completes the Tjukurrpa previously described about the desiccation of the desert that had previously taken place. All this mythology is consistent with what has been found about the changing climate of the Holocene.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Cane, Scott, 2013, First Footprints: The epic story of the first Australians, Allen & Unwin

Scott Cane has included in his book, written as a companion to the ABC TV series of the same name, a number of stories from his days living among Aboriginal people in the desert and moving around with them.

Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated  17/12/2013
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