Oral history

From M.R. O’Connor’s Wayfinding (yes, the book is that good that I can’t stop thinking about it):

When was the first Dreaming [from Aboriginal culture in Australia] story told? There is no way to know precisely. But even the most conservative estimate makes Aboriginal oral history the oldest in the world. Until very recently, there was a consensus that the longest time period that human memories can be transmitted between generations before their meaning has completely changed or become obscured from the original is five hundred to eight hundred years. But in 2016, two Australian researchers published a paper in the journal Australian Geographer that upended this idea. Patrick Nunn and Nicholas Reid recorded stories from twenty-one locations around coastal Australia, from the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north to Kangaroo Island in the south. In each place they found stories about a time when parts of the coastline now under the ocean were actually dry land. The researchers matched the stories to geological evidence of post-glacial sea-level rise. It seems that these stories have been repeated from one generation to the next for a minimum of seven thousand years but possibly for as long as thirteen thousand years and represent “some of the world’s earliest extant human memories.”

A few thoughts on this:

  1. Settler colonialism in Australia and the Americas has done so my irreplaceable harm to humanity. It’s tragic, and I don’t think any country is doing even close to enough for indigenous rights.
  2. The bias in Western “scientific” circles is that everyone else is primitive and that “mythic” cultures can’t have any value other than being exotic specimens. On the other hand, I’m not sure how much cultural knowledge that we produce will last ten thousand years. I rather doubt that the recent “microaggression” training that I took will make the cut.
  3. The five to eight hundred year thing is interesting. That’s right around the time that Mahāyāna Buddhism began to appear, which would mark when “meaning has completely changed or become obscured from the original” in regards to Early Buddhism. This is also when the teachings were first being written down. The oral transmission of early Buddhism was at its (possible) breaking point, a written tradition was first appearing, and a massive new religious movement was going on in the background. My very non-academic guess is that it would be incredibly unlikely for these events to be unconnected.
  4. Another book I recently read, Meditations of the Pali Tradition, makes the point that Western anthropologists completely missed the meditation traditions in Southern Buddhist countries because they simply had no idea how to look for them, and thus, wrongly, concluded that most Buddhist monks in Thailand didn’t and still don’t meditate. Things like this and the quoted text from Wayfinding makes me wonder just how much obvious information we don’t have and how many erroneous conclusions we’ve made. In short, absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.