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Academic & Professional Books  History & Other Humanities  Environmental History

The Edge of Memory Ancient Stories, Oral Tradition and the Post-Glacial World

Popular Science
By: Patrick D Nunn(Author)
296 pages, 8 plates with colour photos and colour illustrations; b/w illustrations, b/w maps, tables
The Edge of Memory is a fascinating and compulsively readable introduction to the past events that are hidden in our stories and myths.
The Edge of Memory
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  • The Edge of Memory ISBN: 9781472943286 Hardback Aug 2018 Usually dispatched within 6 days
Price: £16.99
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About this book

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.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Interesting introduction to an obscure discipline
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 26 Oct 2018 Written for Hardback

    When I read the brief for The Edge of Memory, my first thought was: “Really, Bloomsbury is publishing a book on flood geology?” This creationist take on geology tries to interpret geological features in accordance with the Biblical account of a worldwide flood described in Genesis. If you haven’t read your Bible verses today, don’t worry, if I say “Noah” and “ark”, you probably know which one I mean. My guess was close, but not quite on the ball. Patrick Nunn, a professor of Oceanic Geoscience, here argues that ancient stories and myths hold within them descriptions of geological catastrophes and climatic changes. Welcome to the obscure academic discipline of geomythology.

    The term geomythology was originally coined by Dorothy Vitaliano in 1968 and described in her 1973 book Legends of the Earth. It remains a small but thriving research community with, for example, an edited collection, Myth and Geology, on the topic in 2007. With The Edge of Memory, Nunn focuses specifically on Australian Aboriginal stories that have been told for millennia and never written down. He presents 21 of them here, collected from around the continent. Many speak of floods and submergence, and Nunn neatly links this to the changing climate over the last ten thousand years. As we came out of the last Ice Age, sea levels rose, which Nunn thinks is what storytellers describe in these myths. Obviously, observing their world through a different lens than we do nowadays, such changes were interpreted as signs of angry or playful gods, rather than climatic phenomena or natural disasters.

    Nunn’s writing is great, and he does a superb job when explaining the finer points of the geology involved in sea level rises and melting ice sheets. For example, I have yet to come across a clearer description of isostatic rebound (i.e. the rising of land when it has been unburdened from heavy ice sheets). The idea of legends and myths (including the above-mentioned Biblical flood) referring to past events is fascinating. Nunn thinks that we are unjustly denigrating oral stories, choosing to only trust the written word. Let us not forget, he says, that knowledge has been passed down generations in spoken form for most of our history – writing is a relatively recent invention in the grand scheme of things.

    Fair enough, but I think it is more than justified to retain some healthy scepticism here. Writing has allowed us to pass far more and more detailed information down the generations. And, I would argue, it has been a very important contributing, if not decisive, factor in allowing technology and science to bloom. The spoken word, and especially human memory are notoriously unreliable, and people are prone to embellish memories and selectively forget and remember. Given that you are interpreting stories told in a different language, by people of a different culture, formed at a time when these people's forebears lacked our understanding of the world means, and passed down the generations like a game of Chinese whispers, you have to make quite a few assumptions and informed guesses. I imagine opinions on how best to interpret stories will vary widely. To me it seems that, at best, this method allows you to identify interesting leads that would need corroborating with palaeoclimatological data, but I’m not sure you will ever be able to confidently say “these stories describe this particular change in the climate”. Luckily, Nunn is more than willing to admit these limitations and is sufficiently cautious in presenting his findings. And he shows how Aboriginals have sophisticated methods of cross-checking their stories to ensure fidelity in transmission.

    Besides the traditional Australian stories, Nunn takes a quick look at a few other culturesin Europe and India that record stories hinting at rising sea levels. But it is not just flooding. He discusses a range of myths that hint at past volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, meteor strikes, landslides, the rapid disappearance of islands (see Nunn’s 2009 book Vanished Islands and Hidden Continents of the Pacific), or even extinct animals.

    For the purpose of this book, he has ignored more recent events that have been well documented in, well, writing, such as the eruptions of Krakatoa (see Krakatoa), Laki (see Island on Fire), or Tambora (see Tambora). In one of this footnotes he mentions the Toba supereruption, though he does not subscribe to the idea that it caused a genetic bottleneck for humans (more on this soon in a review of Prothero’s new book When Humans Nearly Vanished), and anyway, this seems too far back in time to have been carried down the ages in stories.

    And what of the legend of Atlantis? Perfect example of why we need to remain sceptic. As Nunn also points out, despite it being a literary device invented by Plato rather than a real place (see for example The Atlantis Story and The Search for Atlantis), this has not stopped people from looking for it and assign geological features to this legend (one of the more serious books on this topic is The Lost Empire of Atlantis).

    The Edge of Memory has several helpful maps, though their reproduction suffers a bit. Some of them use light grey areas to show ancient coastlines, but the colours are so light they are hard to discern in some maps. The colour plate section, on the other hand, features some striking photos and illustrations.

    As also shown by my review of The First Domestication, we ignore traditional knowledge at our own peril. I maintain that healthy scepticism when interpreting them is warranted, but I have to agree with Nunn that this should not make us discard these stories outright. They have the potential to push back our collective memory by thousands of years, and coupling them to modern scientific findings will no doubt yield many more fascinating findings in the years ahead. With its heavy focus on Aboriginal stories (Nunn’s current study subject), The Edge of Memory is not intended as an authoritative overview of the whole discipline of geomythology. Nevertheless, he successfully champions this interesting academic discipline and provides a compulsively readable introduction.
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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.

Popular Science
By: Patrick D Nunn(Author)
296 pages, 8 plates with colour photos and colour illustrations; b/w illustrations, b/w maps, tables
The Edge of Memory is a fascinating and compulsively readable introduction to the past events that are hidden in our stories and myths.
Media reviews

"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

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