Bradshaw Foundation - Latest News



Memory, stories and rock art

Wednesday October 2018
Share on Facebook

The Edge of Memory
by Patrick Nunn

A new book, The Edge of Memory, makes a case for ancient stories being preserved within oral cultures for around 10,000 years in some instances.  It argues that, especially in cultural contexts where survival of human groups was regularly challenged by harsh and unpredictable climate conditions, people accumulated a vast array of knowledge that was formally transmitted from one generation to the next to optimize their chances of survival.  

Memory, stories and rock art  The Edge of Memory by Patrick Nunn

This knowledge was not just practical but also contextual, recalling tribal history and geography and spiritual interactions.  Knowledge transmission was not solely through story-telling, although such practices have been widespread until quite recently, but also through dance and performance.  Rock art appears in many instances to have been important as memory aids, preserving for millennia key information about particular aspects of oral knowledge that storytellers might use as prompts.

Memory, stories and rock art  The Edge of Memory by Patrick Nunn

A memory of history.  Engraving on boulder (left), Dolphin Island (Murujuga Ranges, Western Australia), of a speared fat-tailed kangaroo, typical of prey animals that occupied this area during the coldest time of the last ice age (18-30,000 years ago) when the coastline was 160 km seaward of its present location. Photo by Dr Jo McDonald.
Visits by Macassans (right) in their distinctive prau to northern Australia prior to European settlement are recorded in Aboriginal rock art. This example is from Angwurrkburna on Groote Eylandt (island) in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Photo by Dr Anne Clarke.

Through various applications of radiometric dating, it has been possible to assign minimum ages to ancient stories that recall environmental changes, especially memorable events.  The least controversial are volcanic eruptions, which geologists can generally date with ease.  Thus we know that the Klamath people of Oregon (western USA) who have stories about the terminal eruption of Mt Mazama, which once stood where Crater Lake now exists, must have kept the memory of this alive for around 7600 years. Similar reasoning suggests that Aboriginal Australians witnessed volcanic eruptions between 5000-9000 years ago at Kinrara (Queensland).

Meteorite falls can also be dated quite precisely in many instances, allowing us to infer that Aboriginal Australian stories about the formation of the Henbury Meteorite Craters must have endured at least 4200 years.  A memorable meteorite impact in the Sirente (central Italy) was recorded in the oral traditions of local people and endured for 1650 years.

But it is stories about coastal drowning on which The Edge of Memory focuses, arguing that these may have endured for anywhere between about 7000 and 13,000 years in some parts of the world.  From at least 23 places along the coast of Australia, there are groups of Indigenous stories recalling times when the ocean surface was (much) lower than today - and the coastline was far further seawards.  Then, the stories tell, the sea level started rising, drowning familiar landscapes and forcing people landwards; islands were created where coastal promontories once existed.  Around Australia, in the aftermath of the last great ice age, sea level rose some 120 metres between 15,000 and 7000 years ago.  Given that sea level reached its present level 7000 years ago, hardly moving from it since, stories recalling times when sea level was lower must all have been passed down orally for at least seven millennia.

Memory, stories and rock art  The Edge of Memory by Patrick Nunn

Realizing that humanity had the demonstrable ability during its pre-literate histories to preserve knowledge orally for seven millennia and more gives us pause for thought.  Not least we might wonder what aspects of oral knowledge were never written down and have become lost to us as a species?  And we might also ask how long can bits of information be preserved in intelligible form in oral other words, where is the actual edge of memory?

Patrick Nunn's book, The Edge of Memory, was published by Bloomsbury Sigma on 1st September 2018: 

It is also available as an audio book:  

Free to download is Patrick Nunn in Conversations with Richard Fidler:

Visit the Australian Rock Art Archive:


** Like Page below to receive our articles on Facebook **
Tuesday May 2019
Thursday July 2019
Wednesday June 2019
Tuesday June 2019
Thursday June 2019
Bradshaw FoundationAboutiShopBook ReviewSite MapMailing ListDonateFacebookTwitterContact
If you have enjoyed visiting this section of the website please consider adding a link
Bradshaw Foundation © MMXI
Homepage About the Foundation Contact Us Facebook News Articles Twitter List of Research Papers Professor Stephen Oppenheimer Travel Index About the Expeditions Forthcoming Expeditions Bespoke Expeditions Enquire Practical Information History of Exploration Welcome to the iShop Film Downloads DVD's Sculpture Prints Clothing Messenger Bag eBooks INORA Downloads About iLecture Films Shipping & Handling iLectures In Conversation Video Stories Travel Films Read the reviews Privacy Policy Bradshaw Foundation Facebook Friends of the Foundation Archive Index World's Oldest Rock Art Africa Documentary Films South Africa RARI Giraffe Carvings Niger Namibia Western Central Africa Africa Paintings Gallery Tanzania The Tuareg People Tuareg Salt Caravans Gilf Kebir Birnin Kudu Rock Art Center Archive Index San Rock Art Paintings San Bushman San Rock Art Film Origins Centre Johannesburg Archive Index Arizona Baja California Baja California Film Coso Range Talking Stone Film Nevada Oregon Territory Moab, Utah Clovis First Australia Archive Index Introduction Bradshaw Paintings Kimberley Region The Unambal Hugh Brown Leif Thiele Gallery Dan Clark Grahame Walsh Bradshaws / Gwion Gwion Archive Index Introduction Origins of the British Avebury Stonehenge Sounds of Stonehenge The British Museum British Isles Megaliths Gower Peninsula Rock Art Mendip Hills Prehistory Northumberland Rock Art Red Lady of Paviland Stone Age Mammoth Abattoir Archive Index Introduction Peterborough Petroglyphs Western Canadian Rock Art Writing-On-Stone Wuikinuxv Territory Dinosaur Provincial Park Archive Index Huashan Rock Art Yinchuan Museum Rock Art Festival Field Trip Gallery Itinerant Creeds Inner Mongolia & Ningxia Vanishing Civilization Life in Rock Art (PDF) Tibet Tibet Photographs Dazu Rock Carvings Tiger Motif Archive Index Chauvet Cave Lascaux Cave Niaux Cave Cosquer Cave Rouffignac Cave Portable Art Defining Rock Art Tuc d'Audoubert Bison Dr. Jean Clottes Index UNESCO World Heritage Introduction Cave Paintings Gallery Visiting the Chauvet Cave Return to Chauvet Cave Investigating the Cave Venus & Sorcerer Werner Herzog Film Chauvet Publications India Archive Index Rock Art Central India Pachmarhi Hills India Rock Art Gallery Preservation & Education Dr. V. S. Wakankar Articles on India Rock Art Contemporary Art Middle East Archive Index Middle East Inroduction Rock Art of Iran Rock Art of Saudi Arabia United Arab Emirates Rock Art Ancient Geometry Middle East Colonisation Scandinavian Rock Art Archive Scandinavian Introduction Alta Rock Art Norway Rock Art in Finland Tanum Rock Art Sweden Thor Heyerdahl Archive Index Introduction America's Oldest Art? Pedra Furada Bolivian Rock Art Campeche Island - Brazil Checta Petroglyphs - Peru Cueva de las Manos Santa Catarina Island - Brazil Rock Art in Britain Campeche Rock Art Petroglyphs El Salvador - Corinto Cave Hand Rock Art Paintings Tibetan Rock Art United Arab Emirates Uzbekistan Yinchuan Rock Art Museum Introduction Ice Age Art Gallery Claire Artemyz Jill Cook Interview Cycladic Introduction Cycladic Gallery Introduction Geometric Signs Chart Research Methodology Geometric Signs in France Sign Types/Countries/Regions Bibliography Ancient Symbols in Rock Art Newsletter Archive Download Issues Introduction Genetic Map Professor Stephen Oppenheimer Further Reading Origins of the British BBC Documentary Origins Index Origins Overview 13 Big Questions Stanley Ambrose Homo Floresiensis Herto Skulls Homo Dmanisi Liujiang Skull Introduction Sentinels in Stone Easter Island Rock Art Birdman Cult / Motif Sea & Marine Creatures Design & Motifs Dr Georgia Lee Easter Island Map Contemporary Art Glossary Conclusion Thor Heyerdahl Introduction When & Who Built It? How Was It Built? The Area Sounds of Stonehenge Meaning of a Pyramid Pyramid Studies Pyramid Superstructure Pyramid Substructure Pyramid Preparations Pyramid Building Saqqara Nabil Swelim Temples of Malta and Gozo Research in the Caucasus The Keselo Foundation Homo Dmanisi Ancient Toolmakers Index Introduction Descent into the Cave The Decorated Caves Shamanistic Experience Spring Initiation Rites Summary Page 1 Page 2 Page 3 Page 4 Professor John P. Miller Motif: Eternal Index Banksy Han Meilin Bruce Radke Christian Tuki Gordon Ellis-Brown Site Map Search the Website Glossary of Terms & Definition Podcast on iTunes Other Websites Contact the Foundation