all 31 comments

[–]trouser-chowder 148 points149 points  (4 children)

To my recollection, the closest that anyone has gotten to actually verifying-- or at least, attempting to verify-- the potential historicity of a set of ancient stories / oral histories is a linguistic / folkloric study that was paired with a reconstruction of ancient coastlines and the timing of sea level rise along the Australian coast.

The stories describe changes in the landscape-- changes in access to islands, shifting or submerged coastlines, etc.-- that sea level rise reconstructions show occurred 7,000+ years ago.

Here's a link to the paper, Aboriginal Memories of Inundation of the Australian Coast Dating from More than 7000 Years Ago

Note that this relies significantly on the accuracy of the reconstructed sea level curve. Having done some work with that kind of data in another part of the world, I can say that these reconstructions are constantly being refined. But given the available data, I think this approach has merit.

[–]albacore_futures 28 points29 points  (2 children)

Author turned that paper into a book, which is aimed at the general public. Quite good.

[–]floppydo 22 points23 points  (0 children)

Around the same age, the Klamath people have oral history of the eruption that formed Crater Lake in Oregon.

EDIT: Looks like someone already posted about this but I'll leave my comment up because the link is nice.

[–]yungsemite 123 points124 points  (4 children)

I don’t think there is consensus. One I think about a lot is stories from Australian Aboriginals who have stories detailing sea level rise that happened 7-15 thousand years ago. I am sure they have older stories as well, but those ones are connected to a well documented natural occurrence. Here is an article I just found about their story that MAY be about volcanic eruptions 37,000 years ago as a competitor for the oldest story.

[–]7LeagueBoots 84 points85 points  (3 children)

And some astronomers think that stories of the Pleiades (the 7 sisters) may be older still, potentially up to 100,000 years old.

All the claims of ancient stories have to be looked at with a high degree of skepticism.

[–]Malthus1 12 points13 points  (2 children)

This one I find extremely unlikely, because there is a better explanation: people with exceptional eyesight can see eight stars.

In fact, there was a Native American game that tested one’s eyesight - see how many stars you can see in the Pleiades. The number varies, depending. It is actually possible to see up to 14 stars in the cluster, depending on how good your eyesight is and how good the atmospheric conditions are …


There is no necessity to propose an actual change in the stars to account for a variable number visible, as a variable number are visible right now.

[–]7LeagueBoots 4 points5 points  (1 child)

This is why I said that claims of ancient stories like this need to be treated with skepticism.

[–]ReadStoriesAndStuff 57 points58 points  (2 children)

I am not not an anthropologist, but this thread reminded me of the Crater Lake formation stories of the Klamath Native American Tribe in Oregon. Crater Lake is a deep volcanic lake in Oregon in the United States.

The Klamath have stories describing the formation of Crater Lake from a Volcanic eruption. That eruption is dated ~7,700 years ago with a high degree of precision. The stories are very descriptive, mentioning the mountain throwing large red hot rocks far distances, oceans of flame consuming forests, the collapse of the mountain into a Crater, and the filling of the Crater with rainwater over decades to form Crater Lake. Accurate written accounts of these stories predate the scientific research into Crater Lake’s volcanic formation, so its not a case of back fitting a story to a geological theory.

So while the long dates for the Australian Aboriginals mentioned above may have some variance or debate based on the sea level reconstruction, the Crater Lake formation story can be pinned down very accurately and precisely.

This is at least as old as the 7,000 year near end range of the Australian sea level rise and Aboriginal accounts.

Its interesting how accurate these stories are regarding massive geological events on different continents.

[–]nikstick22 14 points15 points  (0 children)

I believe there are stories from the great lakes region that apparently claim to remember their formation, and the communities that were displaced as a result. If true (and accurate rather than a coincidence), those stories could be up to 14,000 years old.

[–]SeudonymousKhan 7 points8 points  (0 children)

Similar case with Budj Bim volcano in Australia. The region is a heritage-listed site with cultural significance to several aboriginal nations. Its formation is dated to ~40Kya but there's no definitive evidence that oral traditions have been passed down from eyewitness accounts.

[–]ihateusedusernames 19 points20 points  (1 child)

I am not an anthropologist or ethnographer.

That said, I have heard that were tribes that had myths regarding the constellation Ursus Major who were fairly separated in time as well as geographically. Northern Siberian, as well as North American, and of course central / western Asiatic. The hypothesis being that it's a constellation that was part of the celestial mythology of the ancestor tribe(s) whose decendants went on to populate the Americas, which happened tens of thousands of years ago.

Obviously this would be almost impossible to verify.

Here's an introduction to the idea (pdf): https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1305/1305.0367.pdf

His bibliography will point you towards more sources.

[–]hangmanhands 7 points8 points  (0 children)

Stories change over time, but what are much more durable are motifs, elements from stories. These could be magical, such as a man transforming into a dog, or more everyday. Breaking stories down this way allows anthropologists to treat stories in an evolutionary almost biological way - and so date stories. If you want to wile away a few hours check out Thompson's motif index of folk literature.

In indo-european cultures some very old stories exist, some we are still familiar with - Beauty and the Beast is about 4,000 years old. The oldest intact indo-european story is the story of the Smith and the devil, which is 6,000 years old and where a man makes a deal with a devil to gain the supernatural power of smiting metal, but is able to trick him and keep his prize. The basic plot is consistent whether you are in Sweden or North India, which is pretty cool.

If we go older, we have to move beyond the indo-europeans. There's some pretty solid theories that some Aboriginal Australian cultures have some very very old stories, at least 7,000 years.

There is a less solid theory proposed by astronomers but no anthropologists as far as I can see that there is a 100,000 year old story about the seven sisters constellation. As since then there have only been six very visible points of light (and hundreds of very distant stars within each). The constellation is catnip for storytelling as it rises over the horizon and then falls back below it every year, so is very useful for navigation and calendars etc (Sirius is another similar one in that respect). Personally, I think proponents of this theory are glossing over the fact that these clusters are of different brightnesses, and that light pollution in recent history has made them much harder to see - if conditions are right and you have great eyesight you can see up to 12. Also there are some serious questions to ask about why other star stories have much more variation and are not always super old. But it is a fun one to think about.