oldest story on earth


  The Oldest Datable Story on Earth

   approx. 12, 000 years

  Ngadjonji History of the Rainforest People

  Note: this site contains images of aboriginal people now deceased

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 Jirrbal.

The 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)

September 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 named '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 could envy. 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 cooperation with 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.

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