We all know those stories that have been told in our families for generations. The ones that start 'Have I ever told you about your great, great Uncle …?' In some cultures these stories have been passed down for thousands of years, and often reveal significant information about how the surrounding environment has changed and the effect it has had on societies – from stories referring to coastal drowning to the devastation caused by meteorite falls.
Among the most extensive and best-analysed of these stories are from native Australian cultures. People arrived in Australia more than 60,000 years ago, and the need to survive led to the development of knowledge that was captured orally in stories passed down through the generations. These stories conveyed both practical information and recorded history, and they frequently made reference to a coastline that was very different to the one we recognise today. In at least 21 different communities along the fringe of Australia, flood stories were recorded by European anthropologists, missionaries and others. It's only relatively recently that these stories have been recognised as more or less the same. They described a lost landscape that is now under as much as 100 feet of ocean. And these folk traditions are backed up by hard science. Geologists are now starting to corroborate the tales through study of climatic data, sediments and land forms; the evidence was there in the stories, but until recently, nobody was listening.
Using Australia as a springboard, The Edge of Memory explores the science in folk history. It looks at other ancient tales and traditions that may in all probability be rooted in scientifically verifiable fact, and can be explored via geological evidence, such as the Biblical Flood.
Nowadays the majority of our historical knowledge comes from the written word, but in The Edge of Memory, Patrick Nunn explores the largely untapped resource of the collective human memory that is held in stories. This important book explores the wider implications for our knowledge of how human society has developed through the millennia.
Patrick Nunn received his PhD from the University of London before spending 25 years teaching and researching at the international University of the South Pacific, based in Fiji, where he was appointed Professor of Oceanic Geoscience in 1996. He moved to Australia in 2010 to work at the University of New England before being appointed in March 2014 to a research professorship in the Sustainability Research Centre at the University of the Sunshine Coast. Patrick has more than 230 peer-reviewed publications to his credit, including several books, including Vanished Islands and Hidden Continents of the Pacific (University of Hawai'i Press), which was named by the American Library Association as one of the Best of the Best from the University Presses in 2009.
"In this sweeping, masterful volume, Nunn stitches together evidence from geology, anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, history and geography to bring to our collective attention the many durable myths and legends of Indigenous oral traditions. If you care about the future of the planet, and our survival on it, The Edge of Memory is a must-read book."
– Chris Gibson, Editor-in-Chief, Australian Geographer, and Professor of Geography, University of Wollongong, Australia
"Nunn's book is the newest jewel in the recent chain of research showing, through geological verification, that human oral traditions often record real events back 10,000 years and more. He shows that such ancient fact-bearing stories, usually dismissed as "just myths", occur the world around. The book is an engagingly written must-read: I couldn't put it down."
– Elizabeth Wayland Barber, co-author of When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth
"A very important book that shows how non-literate people preserved their observations of memorable events for as much as ten millennia, and their recollections can also help us to face the challenges of environmental changes today."
– Rita Compatangelo-Soussignan, Professor of Ancient History at Le Mans University, France