The Myths that Hint at Past Disasters

May 10, 2021

“Geomyths represent the earliest inklings of the scientific impulse,” says Adrienne Mayor, folklorist, historian of ancient science and research scholar at Stanford University, California, and author of the important The First Fossil Hunters, “showing that people of antiquity were keen observers and applied the best rational, cohesive thinking of their place and time to explain remarkable natural forces they experienced.”

Today, the growing number of published papers, citations and Google search results show interest in such work is growing in the scientific community. Such events as volcanoes in early human history or even Biblical themes, such as how volcanoes, earthquakes and plagues may have shaped the story of the Exodus found in the Hebrew Bible.

Time is running out for many geomyths, and the local knowledge they contain risks being degraded and lost

Geologists have started to realize that there’s actually information in some of humanity’s oldest traditions and stories,” says David Montgomery from the University of Washington, author of The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood,“and that while it’s of a different type of information than we tend to gravitate towards in contemporary science, it is still information”.

Yet time is running out for many geomyths, and the local knowledge they contain risks being degraded and lost. “In the Pacific Islands, old people are forever complaining to me that the young people are always on their phones, and that they really don’t want to hear their grandparents’ stories,” says geologist Patrick Nunn, a professor of Geography at the University of the Sunshine Coast, and author of the new book Worlds in Shadow: Submerged Lands in Science, Memory and Myth.

“But I think everywhere in the world, as oral societies are becoming largely literate, knowledge that has been held orally is disappearing, yet it is this indigenous knowledge that is going to help them cope with sea level rise.”

Nunn is one of the world’s leading geomythologists. A trained geologist, he can usually be found in the international uniform of shorts and a t-shirt, on a small boat sailing between the islands that dot the Pacific Ocean, voice recorder in his hand. His research has focused on some of the stories about vanished islands like Teonimenu, that occur all over the islands scattered across the vast Pacific.

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