Aboriginal Australians Shocked by Volcanic Eruption 37,000 Years Ago Could Still Be Telling the Tale

When people reached Australia remains controversial, but the myth of a giant who turns into a volcano could be the oldest true story in the world

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Budj Bim crater lake
Budj Bim crater lakeCredit: Peter Lieverdink / cafuego.net
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

No volcanoes have erupted on continental Australia in living memory. But the ancestors of today’s aboriginal Australians who had settled in Victoria, South Australia and North Queensland witnessed the odd volcanic blast and evidently lived to tell the tale – and may have been doing so for some 37,000 years.

The connection is that scientists have found evidence of an eruption at the twin peaks of Budj Bim around that time. And the experience could plausibly have been so traumatic to the early settlers of Australia that they have been recounting it ever since, suggests a paper published in Geology last month.

Some fairy tales are believed to have been kicking around Europe for as much as 6,000 to 7,000 years, possibly including the likes of the “Beauty and the Beast.”

In the Old World, the postulated antiquity of the stories is based on comparative phylogenetic analysis – employing statistical methods to genetic analyses as well as, in this case, linguistic traditions – which concluded that the tales, often significantly grimmer than they are today, spread with the Indo-Aryan languages.

Incredibly, the folk story “The Smith and the Devil” may go back to the Bronze Age – not that long after metalworking even became a thing. The devil, apparently, had been a thing for awhile.

But the postulated Australian tale is a whole other kettle of mythical fish, because it could be true. That could make it one of the oldest stories still told today that is verifiably based on an actual event.

Some time when the world was young, goes the story, four giants arrived in southeast Australia. Three set off inland, and one stayed. He then transformed his body into the volcano Budj Bim, aka Mount Eccles, and his long teeth turned into molten lava.

There is another verbal tradition among the Gugu Badhun aboriginal people. Mentioned in the journal of Quaternary Geochronology, it may describe the violent eruption of Mount Kinrara somewhere between 5,000 to 9,000 years ago.

Aboriginal rock art paintings in Kakadu, AustraliaCredit: SherSS / Shutterstock.com

Australia may seem geologically benign today (albeit afflicted with other problems). But about 100 million years ago, prehistoric Australia was studded with super-volcanoes so powerful that at least one blasted zircon crystals all the way across the prehistoric mega-island. Krakatoa and Mount St. Helens, hang your heads. That Aussie blast may have been as cataclysmic as the Toba super-eruption, which was thought to have all but wiped out early humans around 74,000 years ago. It didn’t, according to a recent study.

Anyway, that level of mega-volcanism around Australia abated, though the continent’s southeast presently features a chain of about 400 potentially active volcanoes that arose over a magmatic hot spot. The chain stretches from Melbourne to Mount Gambier, a distance of about 420 kilometers (260 miles). Happily for modern humankind, the last time any erupted – the Blue Lake and Schank vents at Gambier – was about 5,000 years ago.

Despite the best efforts of science, future eruptions remain unpredictable. Certainly any early Australian settlers living by Budj Bim were likely very surprised when the mountain blew its top, and the impression left on their shocked minds could plausibly have reverberated to this very day.

Key to the ancient-tale theory is that there likely were people in Australia when this volcanic range was still active (which it isn’t today). But the debate over when humans reached Australia for the first time and whether it really could be as long as 65,000 years ago has become quite fraught.

Changing paradigms

In 2017, a large team of scientists headed by Prof. Chris Clarkson of the University of Queensland published a groundbreaking paper postulating that modern humans had reached northern Australia by 65,000 years ago. If so, it would profoundly change the narrative of modern human evolution. Among other things, the ancestors of today’s non-African people would have had to leave Africa much earlier than the common theory, which put the exit at 50,000 years.

If people did reach southeast Asia and Australia by 65,000 years ago, their ancestors would have had to leave Africa at least thousands of years before. It takes some time to walk that far, and to cross some water en route.

Clarkson’s theory was based on excavations at a rock shelter called Madjedbebe (formerly known as Malakunanja II), which had been archaeologically explored in 1973 and 1989. Much evidence of prehistoric occupation was found, but the dating remained controversial. Clarkson et al conducted new excavations in 2012 and 2015 to try to set the record straight.

The Glass House Mountains: actually volcanic plugs, remnants of volcanic activity that occurred 26-27 million years agoCredit: Robert Myers / Bidgee

Using thermoluminescence, some finds – including more than 1,500 stone tools – were dated to around 50,000 to 60,000 years, with some margin of error. “These ages made Madjedbebe the oldest human occupation site known in Australia,” Clarkson and his team wrote. They also reported on finding hearths and a man-made pit from the time.

It all may be gospel and maybe people did reach Australia 65,000 years ago, but there is no consensus on that. One critic is Prof. Emeritus James O’Connell of the University of Utah. His underlying argument is that some data has been misinterpreted, termites may have mucked up the timeline, and there is not in fact clear evidence of such early occupation.

“While AMH [anatomically modern humans] may have moved far beyond Africa well before 50-55,000 years ago, data from the region of interest [Australia] offered in support of this idea are not compelling,” he and colleagues wrote in the U.S. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2018.

Blowing smoke

A key snag, he explains to Haaretz, is that if Madjedbebe really goes back 65,000 years – indubitably an attractive concept – it’s an anomaly in the Australian archaeological scene. The net result of a great deal of research since the 1960s has been an apparent threshold for human presence just under 50,000 years ago: “None of the exercises produced any reliable information greater than 50,000 years,” O’Connell says.

Another anomaly is the sheer density of artifacts supposedly from that very ancient time. No other Pleistocene site in Australia has anything like that, O’Connell explains – they have “a very light archaeology signature.”

Asked if it is plausible that Madjedbebe could simply have been prime Paleolithic real estate and intensely occupied, he explains that it was not ecologically irresistible 65,000 years ago. Unlike the marshy wetlands of today, the coast at the time was 300 kilometers away and the habitat was not rich.

Moreover, the nature of the ochre, points and other artifacts doesn’t scream 65,000 or even 50,000 years, he argues. “If somebody knew the archaeological record of Australia pretty well and saw a list of that assembly, and was asked to speculate about age – they would guess less than 5,000 years,” O’Connell says.

Aboriginal Australians seem to descend from people who arrived 50,000 years ago, and possibly moreCredit: evantravels / Shutterstock.com

Yet another argument is over human agency regarding a pit at the site, which the Clarkson team deemed to have been likely made by humans. Australian Prof. Emeritus Jim Allen and some others, writing in that same PNAS article, think the original archaeologists may have transected a runoff channel.

As for the purported hearth: it is 40 centimeters (15 inches) below the lowest artifact at the site. Secondly, it’s oddly small as Paleolithic fireplaces go: less than 10 centimeters across. Can't cook much in that. Thirdly, says O’Connell, it’s in the wrong place. The purported fireplace is by the back wall of the cave rather than near the cave mouth. “At cave sites worldwide, hearths are placed at the outer edge of the shelter or occupation area. You don’t want to smoke up the cave completely, and that’s what a hearth at the back of the site would inevitably do. So it’s probably not a hearth and if it were, it’s in the wrong spot,” he sums up.

Yet another anomaly involves conflicting results of thermoluminescence data and carbon dating. Thermoluminescence is a tricky technique that archaeologists generally outsource to people who understand how to perform it. But the bottom line is that it indicated dates of 50,000 to 60,000 years ago for the early occupation of both Madjedbebe and Nauwalabila – another postulated early occupation site. Carbon dating of charcoal fragments from purportedly early layers at the Nauwalabila site produced a series of age estimates that fell mainly in the Holocene (ergo, the last 11,000 years), O’Connell explains.

Others rebut that, saying the archaeological sequence may have been disturbed and the sample may have been “contaminated” with later charcoal. Radiocarbon dating of three organic samples from deep layers at Madjedbebe all produced dates in range of 11,000 to 16,000 years ago, O’Connell says.

But the strange thing is that one sample dated to 13,000 years ago, but luminescence dated it to well over 50,000 years ago.

Clarkson – a key advocate of the 65,000-year-old proposed occupation date – has yet to personally rebut these criticisms, though other Australian archaeologists suggest that anomalies could have been caused by site disturbance by termites. Hence, the luminescence dating could be valid and the charcoal dating could be due to burrowing insects.

Budj Bim crater lakeCredit: Mertie

“My bottom line,” says O’Connell, “is that the date for human presence at this site 65,000 years ago could be OK, but the case is very weak. Criticisms of the 2017 Madjedbebe report have not been adequately addressed by Clarkson and his associates.”

Asked to comment on Madjedbebe’s postulated age, Clarkson had not responded by press time.

Yet bolstering the case for occupation by the time of the Mount Eccles eruption: in 1947 a stone ax was found embedded in the volcanic ash from the volcano Tower Hill, which also erupted about 37,000 years ago. Being under the ash, it leads to the assumption that somebody was watching the eruption and dropped the ax (or died, who knows?).

All of which means what? That archaeological finds may be subject to interpretation; that a thrilling idea doesn’t mean it’s true; that we still don’t know when modern humans reached Australia; and that the only thing everybody seems to agree on is that when a volcano erupted some 37,000 years ago – never mind exactly which volcano – Australia was occupied. And the blast could plausibly have frightened the geologically naive people so badly that they never forgot it.

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