Book review – The Edge of Memory: Ancient Stories, Oral Tradition and the Post-Glacial World

When I read the brief for The Edge of Memory, my first thought was: “Really, Bloomsbury is publishing a book on flood geology?” This creationist take on geology tries to interpret geological features in accordance with the Biblical account of a worldwide flood described in Genesis. If you haven’t read your Bible verses today, don’t worry, if I say “Noah” and “ark”, you probably know which one I mean. My guess was close, but not quite on the ball. Patrick Nunn, a professor of Oceanic Geoscience, here argues that ancient stories and myths hold within them descriptions of geological catastrophes and climatic changes. Welcome to the obscure academic discipline of geomythology.

The Edge of Memory

The Edge of Memory: Ancient Stories, Oral Tradition and the Post-Glacial World” written by Patrick Nunn, published by Bloomsbury Sigma in August 2018 (hardback, 288 pages)

The term geomythology was originally coined by Dorothy Vitaliano in 1968 and described in her 1973 book Legends of the Earth: Their Geologic Origins. It remains a small but thriving research community with, for example, an edited collection, Myth and Geology, on the topic in 2007. With The Edge of Memory, Nunn focuses specifically on Australian Aboriginal stories that have been told for millennia and never written down. He presents 21 of them here, collected from around the continent. Many speak of floods and submergence, and Nunn neatly links this to the changing climate over the last ten thousand years. As we came out of the last Ice Age, sea levels rose, which Nunn thinks is what storytellers describe in these myths. Obviously, observing their world through a different lens than we do nowadays, such changes were interpreted as signs of angry or playful gods, rather than climatic phenomena or natural disasters.

Nunn’s writing is great, and he does a superb job when explaining the finer points of the geology involved in sea level rises and melting ice sheets. For example, I have yet to come across a clearer description of isostatic rebound (i.e. the rising of land when it has been unburdened from heavy ice sheets). The idea of legends and myths (including the above-mentioned Biblical flood) referring to past events is fascinating. Nunn thinks that we are unjustly denigrating oral stories, choosing to only trust the written word. Let us not forget, he says, that knowledge has been passed down generations in spoken form for most of our history – writing is a relatively recent invention in the grand scheme of things.

“[…] ancient stories and myths record within them descriptions of geological catastrophes and climatic changes. Welcome to the obscure academic discipline of geomythology.”

Fair enough, but I think it is more than justified to retain some healthy scepticism here. Writing has allowed us to pass far more and more detailed information down the generations. And, I would argue, it has been a very important contributing, if not decisive, factor in allowing technology and science to bloom. The spoken word, and especially human memory are notoriously unreliable, and people are prone to embellish memories and selectively forget and remember. Given that you are interpreting stories told in a different language, by people of a different culture, formed at a time when these people’s forebears lacked our understanding of the world means, and passed down the generations like a game of Chinese whispers, you have to make quite a few assumptions and informed guesses. I imagine opinions on how best to interpret stories will vary widely. To me it seems that, at best, this method allows you to identify interesting leads that would need corroborating with palaeoclimatological data, but I’m not sure you will ever be able to confidently say “these stories describe this particular change in the climate”. Luckily, Nunn is more than willing to admit these limitations and is sufficiently cautious in presenting his findings. And he shows how Aboriginals have sophisticated methods of cross-checking their stories to ensure fidelity in transmission.

Besides the traditional Australian stories, Nunn takes a quick look at a few other cultures in Europe and India that record stories hinting at rising sea levels. But it is not just flooding. He discusses a range of myths that hint at past volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, meteor strikes, landslides, the rapid disappearance of islands (see Nunn’s 2009 book Vanished Islands and Hidden Continents of the Pacific), or even extinct animals.

For the purpose of this book, he has ignored more recent events that have been well documented in, well, writing, such as the eruptions of Krakatoa (see Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded), Laki (see Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of Laki, the Volcano that Turned Eighteenth-Century Europe Dark), or Tambora (see Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World). In one of this footnotes he mentions the Toba supereruption, though he does not subscribe to the idea that it caused a genetic bottleneck for humans (more on this in my review of Prothero’s new book When Humans Nearly Vanished: The Catastrophic Explosion of the Toba Volcano), and anyway, this seems too far back in time to have been carried down the ages in stories.

“And what of Atlantis? […] Despite it being a literary device invented by Plato rather than a real place this has not stopped people from looking for it”

And what of the legend of Atlantis? Perfect example of why we need to remain sceptic. As Nunn also points out, despite it being a literary device invented by Plato rather than a real place (see for example The Atlantis Story: A Short History of Plato’s Myth and The Search for Atlantis: A History of Plato’s Ideal State), this has not stopped people from looking for it and assign geological features to this legend (one of the more serious books on this topic is The Lost Empire of Atlantis: History’s Greatest Mystery Revealed).

The Edge of Memory has several helpful maps, though their reproduction suffers a bit. Some of them use light grey areas to show ancient coastlines, but the colours are so light they are hard to discern in some maps. The colour plate section, on the other hand, features some striking photos and illustrations.

As also shown by my review of The First Domestication: How Wolves and Humans Coevolved, we ignore traditional knowledge at our own peril. I maintain that healthy scepticism when interpreting them is warranted, but I have to agree with Nunn that this should not make us discard these stories outright. They have the potential to push back our collective memory by thousands of years, and coupling them to modern scientific findings will no doubt yield many more fascinating findings in the years ahead. With its heavy focus on Aboriginal stories (Nunn’s current study subject), The Edge of Memory is not intended as an authoritative overview of the whole discipline of geomythology. Nevertheless, he successfully champions this interesting academic discipline and provides a compulsively readable introduction.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own however.

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Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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