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Indigenous ritual practiced for 12,000 years, study shows

Alex Berry
July 1, 2024

For more than 10,000 years, people in a part of Australia practiced the same healing ritual. A new study has shown the ability of oral traditions to keep such practices alive across hundreds of generations.

Australien | Snowy River National Park,
The discovery was made during cave excavations in southeastern AustraliaImage: Jochen Schlenker/robertharding/picture alliance

Archaeologists have discovered evidence that shows how Indigenous oral traditions were able to pass down knowledge over 500 generations, the journal Nature Human Behaviour reported on Monday.

Miniature fireplaces with protruding trimmed wooden artifacts smeared in fat were found in a series of caves in Australia's Victorian Alps that match the description of Gunaikurnai healing rituals written down in the 19th century.

The findings are believed to be 12,000 years old, dating them to the end of the last ice age.

"Determining the longevity of oral traditions and ‘intangible heritage' has important implications for understanding information exchange through social networks down the generations," the authors said in their report.

What did the archaeologists find?

The significant discoveries revolve around two sites that include a small fireplace, too small for heating or cooking, and a stick of casuarina wood that has been trimmed and smeared in animal or human fat.

After searching for the meaning of the sites, Gunaikurnai elder Russell Mullett came across the writings of ethnographer Alfred Howitt from the late 1880s.

Howitt described Gunaikurnai medicine men and women, called "mulla-mullung," who were involved in healing rituals.

They would tie something that belonged to the sick person to the end of a stick that was smeared in fat before putting the stick in the ground and lighting a small fire.

"The mulla-mullung would then chant the name of the sick person, and once the stick fell, the charm was complete," a Monash University statement said.

Howitt also said that casuarina wood was used for the ritual.

Oral tradition spanning thousands of years

Jean-Jacques Delannoy, a French geomorphologist and study co-author, told AFP that "there is no other known gesture whose symbolism has been preserved for such a long time".

"Australia kept the memory of its first peoples alive thanks to a powerful oral tradition that enabled it to be passed on," Delannoy said.

"However in our societies, memory has changed since we switched to the written word, and we have lost this sense."

Excavations were carried out at Cloggs Cave in 2020, with the help of Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation (GLaWAC). The Gunaikurnai, who have long lived in the region, had been excluded from previous excavations in the area.

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AFP reporting was used in the writing of this story.

Edited by: Roshni Majumdar