oldest story on earth
The Oldest Datable Story on Earth
12, 000 years
Ngadjonji History of
the Rainforest People
Note: this site
contains images of aboriginal people now
The Ngadjonji people have a story that describes the formation of a local volcano. Carbon 14 dating of the crater gives it an age of 12,000 years. This means the legend is likely the oldest datable story on earth , pre-dating writing by about 2000 years. Here is the story.
The Ngadjonji originally
occupied an area of upland rainforest
country at the headwaters of the Russell and North Johnstone Rivers in
north east Queensland, Australia. Their original language is Dyirbal or
Ngadjonji told stories that would describe volcanic activity, changes
in sea-level, and changes in vegetation. One of these stories explains
that two newly-initiated men broke a taboo and angered the rainbow
serpent, major spirit of the area. As a result 'the camping-place began
to change, the earth under the camp roaring like thunder. The wind
started to blow down, as if a cyclone were coming. The camping-place
began to twist and crack. While this was happening there was in the sky
a red cloud, of a hue never seen before. The people tried to run from
side to side but were swallowed by a crack which opened in the ground.
This explained volcanic eruption.
Large tribes tend to hold
around 200-250 people while the smaller
family tribes tend to have around 20-25. Marriages were usually
arranged and were between two of the same tribe. Women are to carry all
of the baggage and to do all of the hard work. She has to gather, cook,
and build, besides bearing and caring for the children.
While gathering food, the Ngadjonji would take poisonous plants and,
using complicated methods, would make them edible.
The main meal of the day was
when the hunting and gathering parties
returned. While small food items were cooked quickly at the edge of the
campfire, large game or fish were cooked in an earth oven.
When someone died, the body was
placed on a platform about 2m above
the ground with a small, very smoky fire lit under it and kept burning
so that as the body juices ran out so that it was smoke-dried and
preserved. While the body was being smoked, certain near relatives had
the privilege of smearing themselves with ashes and standing under the
dear departed and allowing the drips to fall on them. When the process
was complete certain near relatives were supposed to carry certain
specified parts with them in a dilly bag at all times for a set period.
This funeral ritual was
described by Palmerston as taking place near
Wairambar Creek on September 24th 1886 as follows: (remember these are his
words of 1886)
24th. - It is still raining. I am much better, but weak. During the
afternoon I cleaned out a blue slate crevice, at the upper end of the
beach, dishing off 5 oz. of shotty gold, and washing 1 oz. to the dish
several times. I am tortured all over with pains, and have no more
energy than a snail. I omitted to mention, on 24th of September, that,
although I was so very ill, I managed to cross Wairambar Creek and
surmount the plateau beyond it, to witness the 'Coway' ceremony over
'Nooychoo's' dead body. The word 'Coway' is the native name for
'mummy.' There are several hundreds of aborigines called together for
the special purpose of mummifying the corpse. These blacks were
loitering about the body in crowds. On being notified of my approach,
they formed themselves into two long lines, as a sort of body-guard for
me to pass between to the dead body, which was fixed on a stage about
two feet high, with a back to it.
The deceased was placed in a sitting posture, in the usual native style
known as 'tajoj' fashion. A slow fire was alight on the ground
immediately under the stage; the arms were bent and upraised, with the
hands open, as if in exclamation; the head rested, with a cadaverous
lean, on its left shoulder; the mouth was open and showed a swollen
tongue; the head was freed from the white hair by which I had known it;
the features were bloated beyond recognition; the arms and legs were
much withered, and the trunk was unnaturally bulky, being between a
semi-cooked and putrid-blown state. 'Wallajar,' mentioned elsewhere
here, an elder brother of the deceased, stood close to the latter's
left side, and seemed to be the only sorrowful being in the crowd. On
the same stage, on the other side of the dead body, sat a well-cured
mummy of a still older brother, named 'Monumbaloo', seeming singularly
large, even in its anciently shrivelled state. I would have liked to
have taken it for the Brisbane Museum, but was afraid to ask the blacks
for it, though not from any personal fear of them. If the above scene
was disgusting, there is immeasurably worse to follow - a scene that
fired my soul with indignation and revolt, almost putting me to the
point of rifling as many as I could of the foul brutes, but discretion
regarding future personal considerations held me curbed, thus it was
that I allowed them, unrebuked, to wallow in their dead's filth. My boy
'Poinkee' told me that, if I had seen sufficient, I had better go, for
never before had white-man witnessed the offensive operations they were
in a hurry to perform. However, I asked to be allowed the 'privilege'.
They demurred, and much talk ensued, ending with a promise from me to
give a pocket-handkerchief to each, on my returning from Geraldton.
That proved rather an expensive promise. I believe there were a dozen
of the dead man's sons present – all young men. One of them
'Ninkah', was the principal actor in what I saw. He took the dead body
of his father astride his shoulders, carrying it uprightly, so that its
exuding matter trickled down his naked back. In that fashion he carried
it between the files of niggers, all the while murmuring something.
Then, with the help of others, he laid the body on its right side amid
some green fronds spread for the purpose. 'Ninkah' then borrowed my
pocket knife, and commenced nicking the body just below the ribs, on
the left loin, moaning at the end of each nick, while the crowd
corroboreed, stamping their feet and clapping their hands. With the
piercing of the trunk the corroboree ended; and as many as could well
lay over the body, and wedge their faces over the incision, did so, to
catch the obnoxious gases that issued there from. When these had
escaped, the incision was made large enough to admit 'Ninkah's' hands.
From that time, the knife was not used, the son slowly tore out his
father's intestines, stripped them of any grease which he distributed
to other relatives to grease their heads and bodies. Indeed, many of
them could not wait to be presented with grease, but rushed up and
plunged their hands into the dead body, raking out whatever they could
get to smear themselves with. Pulling out the entrails seemed to be
tough work, for they were a considerable time about it, several times
squeezing their heads into the body, as if to sever something with
their teeth. At last the whole of the offal came out. One powerfully
built fellow, with the whole of his head's crown bald, though the
remainder was plentifully dark haired, that hung down about his
shoulders in long matted twigs, that might be mistaken for ringlets in
the distance, carried the offal away in his arms - hugging the filthy
burden as if it was as precious as a new-born babe. He disappeared in
the jungle, with several others following him; after a considerable
time, he appeared from quite a different direction, with it still in
his arms, and laid it down near his fire, covering it with some green
bushes. The heart, liver and lungs were torn out, a small piece at a
time handed about and prepared for a cannibalistic meal straight away.
The body was again lifted upon the
stage, and laid on its side over the fire. A blanket was thrown over
it, and it was left to be cooked to the proper stage of mummy
preservation. But, before this was done, the gins took their turn at
wallowing in the internals of the corpse, in like manner to the men.
One aged gin lay full length along it, and many times kissed the
crawling maggoty face. The grave old 'Wallajar' took no hand in the
ceremony, but stood and sat some fifteen yards off by me, with one arm
round me. Large tears trickled down his wrinkled cheeks the whole time.
A shirt being the only garment on me, I took it off and gave it to him;
and distributed a box of matches amongst the rest. I left the camp amid
a babble of aboriginal gaiety and stinking embraces. The sickening
smell hovered about me for days; even the little food I ate, and the
very pannikins from which I drank, seemed to be polluted with it.
Before leaving the scene, I selected between twenty and thirty of the
ablest youths to accompany me to Geraldton, in the capacity of swagmen,
immediately starting some of them to the more elevated tablelands for a
supply of 'coohoy' nuts for food on our way.
Ignoring dates for a while, I may state that I started for the
abovementioned township amid torrents of rain. On the second day's
travel, about mid-day, we struck and crossed the North Johnstone River
at the old diggings, there learning from some Chinamen that Mr. G. E.
Clarke and Mr. W. Joss had passed up the Johnstone on a prospecting
tour on the day previous. I brought my boys to a halt, and started four
black-trackers after them. Mr. Clarke returned with these, and I showed
him my gold and directed him to the places where I had discovered it.
Being well pleased with the sight of the fruits of my exploration, he
graciously gave me food that he knew he could in a short time
ill-spare. I ate this with a relish that sank the best of blackfellows'
fare to the level of mere animal existence that no civilized being
Next morning, in spite of the Johnstone River's wild appalling stream,
despite its dark, repugnant, thorny jungle, which had to be chopped in
separate bits for every foot of access or examination, despite its
vapours of poisonous humidity, and not less eludable vile crawling
leaches, I started the party, consisting of Mr. G. E. Clarke, Mr. W.
Joss, and one aboriginal, painfully piled with about 80 Ib. per man, in
quest of the yellow metal, while I went down the river for Geraldton,
via Goondi Plantation.
Earth Science in
the Wairambar Rainforest Nature Refuge is preserving a section of
Wairambar Creek together with some old gold workings as it was in the
time of Palmerston. At the time of writing, apparently no mechanisms
exist in Queensland to maintain sites of geological significance. This
particular area has both historical and geological (first payable gold
in north Queensland) significance.