No one knows when human speech began, but estimates are that human speech has existed for tens of thousands of years, and perhaps since as long as 150,000 years ago. Writing — a system which allowed humans to store and organize information without the need for human speech — didn’t exist until cunieform was created using clay tablets in what is now Iraq 3,200 years ago, followed quickly, and independently, by the development of writing in China and Mesoamerica.
So, how did our early human ancestors bridge that gap and preserve information for those tens of thousands of years? Obviously, they did so through oral communication and memorization. Through talks around campfires and in hunter-gatherer villages, the early humans learned of the useful plants and herbs in their areas and how they could be used to treat illness or injury, were taught about successful techniques for hunting prey, and undoubtedly spoke of legends and heroes and creation stories. The Iliad and the Odyssey, attributed to the blind poet Homer, were part of the ancient Greek oral tradition and were told for generations before being reduced to writing. The ancient tale of Gilgamesh and countless creation tales also date back to the era before the written word. The evidence is that the oral tradition can be a remarkably durable way of preserving and conveying information.
Scientists believe they may have discovered the oldest existing piece of oral tradition on Earth — one that dates back 37,000 years and countless generations. It is the tale of Budj Bim told by the Gunditjmara people in eastern Australia, one of whom is shown above. Like other Aboriginal peoples in Australia, the Gunditjmara have a rich oral tradition in which all kinds of ecological information is conveyed through tellings and re-tellings. In the story in question, an ancient creator-being is transformed into a volcano called Budj Bim. Scientists have now determined that two volcanoes erupted in the area in which the Gunditjmara lived 37,000 years ago, and suspect that the tale of Budj Bim is actually an account of the explosions. And if their hypothesis is true, the correlation of the legend and the volcanic eruptions would be confirming evidence that humans lived on Australia 37,000 years ago.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to sit down with a member of the Gunditjmara and hear her tell the tale of Budj Bim, as she heard it from her mother who heard it from her mother, understanding that it was told in the same way, in an unbroken line of generations, going back 37,000 years? It would be almost like sitting around the campfire with our early human ancestors, hearing the tale directly in their voice. I would like to hear that tale.