It wasn’t long after Henry David Inglis arrived on the island of Jersey, just northwest of France, that he heard the old story. Locals eagerly told the 19th-century Scottish travel writer how, in a bygone age, their island had been much more substantial, and that folks used to walk to the French coast. The only hurdle to their journey was a river—one easily crossed using a short bridge.
“Pah!” Inglis presumably scoffed as he looked out across 22 kilometers of shimmering blue sea between Jersey and the French coast—because he went on to write, in his 1834 book about the region, that this was “an assertion too ridiculous to merit examination.” About 150 years earlier, another writer, Jean Poingdestre, had been similarly unmoved by the tale. No one could have trod from Jersey to Normandy, he withered, “vnlesse it were before the Flood,” referring to the Old Testament cataclysm.
Yet there had been a flood. A big one. Between roughly 15,000 and 6,000 years ago, massive flooding caused by melting glaciers raised sea levels around Europe. That flooding is what eventually turned Jersey into an island.
Rather than being a ridiculous claim not worthy of examination, perhaps the old story was true—a whisper from ancestors who really did walk through now-vanished lands. A whisper that has echoed across millennia.
That’s exactly what the geographer Patrick Nunn and the historian Margaret Cook at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia have proposed in a recent paper.
In their work, the pair describe colorful legends from northern Europe and Australia that depict rising waters, peninsulas becoming islands, and receding coastlines during that period of deglaciation thousands of years ago. Some of these stories, the researchers say, capture historical sea-level rise that actually happened—often several thousand years ago. For scholars of oral history, that makes them geomyths.
“The first time I read an Aboriginal story from Australia that seemed to recall the rise of sea levels after the last ice age, I thought, No, I don’t think this is correct,” Nunn says. “But then I read another story that recalled the same thing.”
Nunn has since gathered 32 groups of stories from Indigenous communities around the coast of Australia that seem to refer to geological changes along shorelines.
Take the legend of Garnguur, told by the Lardil people (also known as Kunhanaamendaa) in the Wellesley Islands, off northern Australia. It describes a seagull woman, Garnguur, who cut the islands off from the mainland by dragging a giant raft, or walpa, back and forth across a peninsula. In some versions of the story, this is punishment for her brother, Crane, who failed to look after her child when asked. Nunn and Cook argue that the narrative can be taken as a memory of how, roughly 10,000 years ago, melting glaciers caused the Wellesley Islands to be cut off from the mainland. Interestingly, there is an underwater ridge between two of the Wellesley Islands—perhaps a feature of the seabed that prompted the image of Garnguur plowing her raft into the earth, the researchers suggest in their paper.