News 2 – Oral traditions dating back to prehistoric times

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Duane Hamacher, et al, “The archaeology of orality: Dating Tasmanian Aboriginal oral traditions to the Late Pleistocene”, Journal of Archaeological Science, 159 (2023).

Is it possible to date the age of certain oral traditions dating back to prehistoric times? That’s what a study published in November 2023 in the Journal of Archaeological Science proposes!

Focusing on the Aboriginal peoples living in Australia, researchers have demonstrated that Tasmanian oral traditions date back at least to the end of the Late Pleistocene. The methodology adopted consisted in examining traditions describing natural phenomena, which were correlated with geological, paleoenvironmental and astronomical studies in order to retrace the events thus described.

Current archaeological evidence points to the arrival ofHomo sapiens in Australia at least 65,000 years ago. Our species would have reached Tasmania around 40,000 years ago, before it broke away from the Australian continent.

The study in question focuses on Palawa and Pakana oral traditions, which were documented in the 1830s. Of these traditions, two elements caught the researchers’ attention: the submergence of a land bridge linking Tasmania to Australia, and the mention of a particularly bright star at the celestial south pole.

Using bathymetry (a technique for measuring the depth and relief of the ocean) and topography, researchers have estimated that the land bridge mentioned in the legend refers to the Bassian land bridge. This was submerged by rising waters around 12,000 years ago, separating Tasmania from Australia. The star itself has been identified as Canopus. Researchers calculated its declination during the last precession to estimate when it was at its minimum, a position where it would have appeared particularly bright at the south celestial pole from Tasmania. This has been estimated at around 14,000 BC.

Thus, provided that these traditions accurately reflect events, this study indicates that Tasmanian oral traditions date back at least to the end of the Upper Pleistocene, between 12,000 and 14,000 years BC. This shows that oral traditions can be perpetuated over thousands of years, opening up new perspectives in what is known as oral archaeology.

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