Scientists have traditionally discounted oral traditions, such as stories of floods and other catastrophes, but now a new study has shown that they should be given much more respect. It shows that Australian Aboriginal oral traditions accurately depict not only the rise of global sea levels, but also their timing, from between 7,000 to 13,000 years ago.

The study, conducted by the Sunshine Coast University and the University of New England in Australia, compared twenty-one different traditional stories from different Aboriginal cultures around Australia, that depict the flooding of the Australian coastline due to the sea rising, with what is scientifically known about sea level rise following the end of the last ice age. The researchers found a consistency in all of the stories, in that they corroborated with what is known about the loss of land through sea level rise of that era. These stories were also consistent among cultures that lived both near the coast, and ones that lived over 1,000km inland, far from the ocean.

“Importantly these stories come from every part of the Australian coastline, and they are similar in direction – all talk of sea level rise and the loss of land, none go the other way and tell of land acquired through sea level fall,” explains UNE Associate Professor Nicholas Reid.

“In most instances it is plausible to assume that these stories refer to events that occurred more than about 7,000 years ago, the approximate time at which sea level reached its present level around Australia. They therefore provide empirical corroboration of postglacial sea-level rise.”

In addition to countering skepticism from scholars that oral traditions were unlikely to be accurate beyond 800 years, the stories say that the rise of the sea was rapid enough to impact the lives of individuals, as opposed to the gradual rise that is accepted by mainstream science.

Current scientific assumptions are that the sea level rise we face from melt in such places as Greenland will be gradual, but this tradition suggests that they could be much more sudden. Most of the world’s important population centers are on coasts, and are vulnerable to sea level rise.

For a scientific debate about the implications of sea level rise in modern times, click here.

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