Nature Science Society

Indigenous People – The Watchers of the Earth

Shortly before 8am on 26 December 2004, the cicadas fell silent and the ground shook in dismay. The Moken, an isolated tribe on the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, knew that the Laboon, the ‘wave that eats people’, had stirred from his ocean lair. The Moken also knew what was next: a towering wall of water washing over their island, cleansing it of all that was evil and impure. To heed the Laboon’s warning signs, elders told their children, run to high ground.

The tiny Andaman and Nicobar Islands were directly in the path of the tsunami generated by the magnitude 9.1 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra. Final totals put the islands’ death toll at 1,879, with another 5,600 people missing. When relief workers finally came ashore, however, they realised that the death toll was skewed. The islanders who had heard the stories about the Laboon or similar mythological figures survived the tsunami essentially unscathed. Most of the casualties occurred in the southern Nicobar Islands. Part of the reason was the area’s geography, which generated a higher wave. But also at the root was the lack of a legacy; many residents in the city of Port Blair were outsiders, leaving them with no indigenous tsunami warning system to guide them to higher ground.

Humanity has always courted disaster. We have lived, died and even thrived alongside vengeful volcanoes and merciless waves. Some disasters arrive without warning, leaving survival to luck. Often, however, there is a small window of time giving people a chance to escape. Learning how to crack open this window can be difficult when a given catastrophe strikes once every few generations.

So humans passed down stories through the ages that helped cultures to cope when disaster inevitably struck. These stories were fodder for anthropologists and social scientists, but in the past decade, geologists have begun to pay more attention to how indigenous peoples understood, and prepared for, disaster. These stories, which couched myth in metaphor, could ultimately help scientists prepare for cataclysms to come.

Anyone who has spent time around small children gets used to the question ‘why?’ Why is the sky blue? Why do birds fly? Why does thunder make such a loud noise? A friend’s mother told us that thunder was God going bowling in the sky. Nature need not be scary and unpredictable, even if it was controlled by forces we could neither see nor understand.

The human penchant for stories and meaning is nothing new. Myths and legends provide entertainment, but they also transmit knowledge of how to behave and how the world works. Breaking the code of these stories, however, takes skill. Tales of gods gone bowling during summer downpours seems nonsensical on the surface, but know a little about the sudden thunderclaps and the clatter of bowling pins as they’re struck by a ball, and the story makes sense.

In 1968, Dorothy Vitaliano, a geologist at Indiana University, pioneered the study of cultural myths that told of real geological events. Ancient Sanskrit tales told of entire cities that sunk beneath the waves with all the hallmarks of a tsunami. Plato’s story of the utopian Atlantis, destroyed by the gods in a wreckage of fire, might have referred to a volcano that partially destroyed the Greek island of Thera more than 3,500 years ago.

this story wasn’t simply a saga of angry gods but a geological record of an ancient eruption

Vitaliano published her work in a folklore journal, not a scientific one. It would take another geologist, Patrick Nunn of the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia, to bring the field more fully into the physical sciences. Nunn’s work in the paradisiacal South Pacific gave him the opportunity to immerse himself in the islands’ traditional cultures. A group on Fiji regaled him with a story of Tanovo, the ancient chief of the Fijian island of Ono. One day, Tanovo ran across his main rival, the chief of the volcano Nabukelevu.

To intimidate Tanovo, the volcano chief made Nabukelevu rise up and belch gas and burning rock into the air. Tanovo responded by weaving massive baskets to remove the mountain, dropping the debris in the ocean to create new islands. To Nunn, this story wasn’t simply a saga of angry gods but a geological record of an ancient eruption. Pressure from magma can make a volcano expand in size before the release of gas and ash. Geologists knew that small islands around Fiji were the result of volcanic rubble, but Nunn was the first geologist to hear these stories and read between the lines.

The problem was that the best geological evidence Nunn could find dated the last eruption of Nabukelevu to 50,000 years in the past, long before any humans inhabited Fiji. Nunn wrote off the tale as merely a fanciful story, and it would have remained that way if not for a new road being built near the volcano. When construction workers dug out the roadbed, they discovered pottery fragments mixed in a three-foot layer of ash. Further analysis revealed that the fragments were 3,000 years old, dating to 1,000 years after humans first arrived on Fiji.

These stories, in synch with archaeological finds, provided evidence of ‘geological events we don’t have access to any other way. There are not many examples of wholly invented myths – ancient humans were not like modern fiction writers. The point of these stories was to pass knowledge along,’ Nunn explained.

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