The myths that hint at past disasters - Deepstash

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Rising sea levels

Studies show that a large part of Stinson Beach near San Francisco will be under a foot of water in less than 20 years. Many think the 21st Century is the first time we faced this kind of event, but it is not.

Sea levels started to rise nearly 15,000 years ago with the end of the last ice age. With the possibility of a global sea-level rise of 3ft (1m) by 2050, researchers are looking at ancient stories that can convey a collective memory about land lost to the sea.

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Observations hidden in popular myths

Geologists realise that there's factual information in some of the oldest traditions and stories. Many of the tales can provide insight into what might have happened thousands of years ago when the ice sheets melted and give us an understanding that may save lives in the future.

Researchers that set out to find actual events or people behind popular myths are known as geomythologists. These ancient stories are seen as possible observations of phenomena by pre-literate people.

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Aboriginal Australian rising sea-level stories

Most Aboriginal Australian stories about the changes in landscape and way of life caused by post-glacial sea-level rise are divided into two groups.

  • One story is that the bad behaviour of a man named Goonyah caused the sea to flood the land, and he organised the people to stop it.
  • In another, he led the people up a mountain to escape the water and rolled heated rocks into the sea.

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The fate of drowned cities in northwest Europe

The ancient stories of fighting a losing battle against the sea are concentrated along the coast of Brittany, the Channel Islands, Cornwall and Wales.

  • In Britanny, the city of Ys was said to be protected by a series of sea defences that required gates to open at low tide. Then the King Gradlon's daughter, Dahut, opened the gates at high tide, letting the ocean destroy the city.
  • A similar story is told about the fate of another city in Cardigan Bay.

The lesson we can learn is that sea-level rise cannot be stopped easily.

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Geomythology seen as "flaky"

  • While some conventionally trained geologists are curious about mythic stories, others don't like it, missing out on the kernels of truth embedded in the narratives.
  • Literate people are also sceptical about the power of oral traditions.
  • If academics don't follow good practice like asking permission first, publishing research can lead to accusations of cultural appropriation.

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Geomythology validated

  • The first-ever session that helped to validate geomythology in the minds of scientists was held in 2004 at the International Geological Congress. 
  • Historian Adrienne Mayor wrote The First Fossil Hunters (2000). The book was the first systematic study of the evidence for the ancient discovery of fossils.

Ultimately, geomythology challenges our thinking about the past and the future. The geomyths provide information and details that would otherwise be easily missed.

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