[meteorite-list] To Find Meteorites, Listen to the Legends of Australian Aborigines
From: Ron Baalke <baalke_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Fri, 3 Oct 2014 16:00:23 -0700 (PDT)
To Find Meteorites, Listen to the Legends of Australian Aborigines
Oral traditions may have preserved records of impacts over thousands of
years and could lead to fresh scientific discoveries
By Sarah Zielinski
October 3, 2014
In the heart of Australia, at a remote site south of Alice Springs, the
land is pitted with about a dozen strange depressions. Don't drink the
rainwater that pools there, or a fire devil will fill you with iron.
So goes one Aboriginal tale that has been passed down across generations.
The site is the Henbury meteorite field, which was created about 4,700
years ago when a large, iron-filled meteorite slammed into Earth's atmosphere
and broke apart, scattering fragments. The Aboriginal warning is perhaps
one of the clearest examples of an oral tradition that has preserved the
memory of an ancient meteorite strike, argues Duane Hamacher at the University
of New South Wales in Australia. According to Hamacher, such tales may
be vital clues pointing toward future finds.
"These traditions could lead to the discovery of meteorites and impact
sites previously unknown to Western science,' he writes in a paper that
will appear in an upcoming issue of Archaeoastronomy and that was published
online August 27.
Most myths and tales are just stories passed down through the ages, altered
over time like a vast game of "Telephone." But some are based on actual
geological or astronomical events that occurred long ago. The search for
the truth behind those stories has inspired a field of science called
Most stories have been passed down for only 600 or 700 years, geoscientist
Patrick Nunn of the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia told
Smithsonian earlier this year. There are outliers: The Klamath people
tell a legend about a battle between two powerful spirits, which details
the eruption of Mount Mazama and the creation of Crater Lake in Oregon
about 7,700 years ago. But most stories don't last that long. "These kinds
of things are very, very rare," Nunn said.
In his study, Hamacher identifies several oral traditions from indigenous
Australians that he says can be linked to meteorites. The Henbury craters,
for instance, were found in 1899 but were not immediately recognized as
impact sites. At the time, cattle station owner Walter Parke called them
"one of the most curious spots I have ever seen in the country" in a letter
to anthropologist Frank Gillen. 'To look at it I cannot but think it has
been done by human agency, but when or why, goodness knows."
In 1921, a man named James M. Mitchell visited the Henbury site with an
Aboriginal guide who refused to go near the depressions, saying the place
was where a fire "debil-debil" (devil) had come out of the sky and killed
everything. Thirteen years later, Mitchell returned. By then, the astronomical
connection had been made - a prospector found iron slugs in the craters
in 1931 - but Mitchell's new Aboriginal guide again expressed fear of the
site. He said that his people wouldn't camp within two miles of the depressions,
get closer than half a mile or collect the water that filled some. A fire
devil would fill them with iron should they dare. The guide knew this,
he said, because his grandfather had seen the fire devil come from the
sun. Hamacher found similar tales that other Aboriginal people told to
visitors in the first half of the 20th century.
The fire devil is probably representative of that long-ago event, Hamacher
concludes. "The current evidence indicates that Aboriginal people witnessed
the event, recorded the incident in oral traditions and those traditions
remained intact through the 1930s and possibly later,' he writes. "If
the tradition is a living memory of the event, it is well over 4,500 years
Scientists today travel to the ends of the Earth searching for meteorites.
Sometimes they even race to the site of an impact looking for fragments.
These space rocks are leftovers from the building blocks of the solar
system and can yield important clues to the origins of planets - and perhaps
even help us understand the spark of life on Earth. Using local myths
to uncover ancient impacts could offer scientists a fresh way to track
down some of these celestial arrivals.
Join science writer Sarah Zielinski and hear more tales of geomythology
at the Smithsonian Associates event "Oracles, Chimeras, and Bears, Oh
My: Is There Science Behind Ancient Stories?" at the S. Dillon Ripley
Center in Washington, D.C., on October 7.
Received on Fri 03 Oct 2014 07:00:23 PM PDT