Indigenous Australians may have witnessed volcanic eruption 7000 years ago

New research has revealed that a volcanic eruption in northeastern Australia around 7000 years ago may have been witnessed by the Gugu Badhun Aboriginal people.

Photograph by: Ueli FahrniFormation of some of Australia’s landscape may have been witnessed by Aboriginal people.

Geologists based in Scotland and Australia used a sophisticated rock dating technique to determine when the eruption occurred and have found a potential link between the volcanic event and stories from Aboriginal folklore.

The team, from the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC), the University of Glasgow, the University of St Andrews, the Australian National University, and James Cook University, examined rock samples from long lava flows around the Kinrara volcano in Queensland. The flows, which are up to 55 km long, are still clearly visible across the landscape around the volcano.

“When people think of Australia, volcanoes are probably not the first thing that springs to mind, but they are actually more common than many people realise. For example, there are nearly 400 volcanic vents in north Queensland, which erupted over the last few million years, and Kinrara is one of the most recent,” said Dr Benjamin Cohen, of the University of Glasgow and SUERC.

The researchers used a technique known as argon-argon geochronology to learn more about the age of the volcano. Using a noble gas mass spectrometer, they could measure the amount of argon built-up from natural radioactive decay of potassium, allowing them to determine how much time has passed since the volcano erupted.

The team’s measurements allowed them to date the Kinrara eruption to around 7000 years ago, with the possibility that it may have been up to 2000 years further back or forward in time. Their findings have been published in the journal Quaternary Geochronology.

“The argon-argon technique we use has improved considerably in the last few years, allowing us to view the past through a sharper lens than ever before. Without those improvements, we would not have been able to determine the age of the Kinrara volcano,” said Dr Cohen.

Incredibly researchers believe the event was witnessed by native people who described what happened in their stories which were handed down verbally for around 230 generations – further back in time than even the oldest written historical records of Egypt or Mesopotamia.

Photograph by: Thomas SchochAboriginal stories going back 230 generations detail history of Australia

Dr Cohen’s exploration of local histories from the Gugu Badhun people uncovered a recording, made in the 1970s, of an Aboriginal elder discussing an event that sounds very much like a volcanic eruption. The elder described a time when a pit was made in the ground with lots of dust in the air, and that people got lost in the dust and died. He also described an occurrence when the earth was on fire along the watercourses.

“These stories are plausible descriptions of a volcanic eruption – the Kinrara volcano has a very prominent crater, which produced volcanic ash and lava fountains. The lavas from the volcano flowed 55 kilometres down the surrounding stream and river valleys, and would have looked very much like the earth burning.

“The volcanic eruption of Kinrara adds to a growing list of geological events that appear to be recounted in Australian Aboriginal traditions, including sea level rise around 10,000 years ago and other volcanic eruptions elsewhere on the continent,” said Dr Cohen.