The new science of geomythology is being harnessed by researchers who believe folklore can save lives. On the banks of Siletz Bay in Lincoln City, Oregon, officials dedicated a memorial last week to one of America’s worst calamities: a huge earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands of Native Americans 300 years ago.
But the memorial’s main job is not to commemorate the disaster, which has only just come to light, but to warn local people that similar devastation could strike at any time. The area sits over massive fault lines whose dangers have been highlighted by a startling new scientific discipline that combines Earth science studies and analysis of ancient legends. This is geomythology, and it is transforming our knowledge of earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis, says the journal Science.
According to the discipline’s proponents, violent geological upheavals may be more frequent than was previously suspected.
Apart from the ‘lost’ Seattle earthquake, geomythology has recently revealed that a volcano in Fiji, thought to be dormant, is active, a discovery that followed geologists’ decision to follow up legends of a mountain appearing overnight.
Geologists have found that Middle Eastern flooding myths, including the story of Noah, could be traced to the sudden inundation of the Black Sea 7,600 years ago. The Oracle at Delphi has been found to lie over a geological fault through which seeped hallucinogenic gases. These could account for the trances and utterances of the oracle’s mystics.
‘Myths can tell us a great deal about what happened in the past and were important in establishing what happened here 300 years ago,’ said Brian Atwater, of the US Geological Survey in Seattle.
Along the Oregon and Washington coast, there are Native American stories about boulders, called a’yahos, which can shake to death anyone who stares at them. In addition, Ruth Ludwin, a seismologist in Seattle, discovered tales of villages being washed away and of whales and thunderbirds locked in fights. These stories were a key influence on Atwater, who started to study the 680-mile long Cascadia subduction zone fault along the coast. What he found provided a shock. Long stretches had suffered sudden inundation relatively recently.
The study of trees stumps in this drowned landscape indicated there had been a huge earthquake and a tsunami between 1680 and 1720. ‘We didn’t know whether it was one massive quake or a couple of slightly smaller ones. Nor did we know exactly when the disaster occurred,’ added Atwater.
Later research on tree rings put the date at between 1699 and 1700. Then local legends helped again. Japanese colleagues studied their records and traced an orphan tsunami – a giant wave not linked to a local earthquake – that destroyed several villages on 27 January, 1700.
‘That told us two things: that our earthquake must have been vast, Richter scale 9, to devastate part of Japan thousands of miles away. It also gave us a precise date for our disaster.’
Scientists now believe huge earthquakes and tsunamis devastate the Seattle area every 200 to 1,000 years. ‘We may be due one soon,’ added Atwater. However, until this year, the lesson of that tsunami was remembered only as a dim legend. Other such stories have been put to better use, however.
Last year’s tsunami was also triggered by a strong earthquake, and around 300,000 people died. The Moken – or sea gypsies – of Thailand, however, have a tradition which warns that when tides recede far and fast, now known as a precursor of a tsunami, then a man-eating wave will soon head their way: so they should run far and fast. Last 26 December, they did – and survived.
Another example of the power of geomythology is from Patrick Nunn, of Fiji in the South Pacific. His studies of volcanoes on the Fijian island of Kadavu indicated they had not been active for tens of thousands of years. ‘Then I heard legends of recent eruptions,’ he told The Observer. ‘I thought them unlikely. When a road was cut there in 2002, I found there had been a volcanic eruption long after it had been occupied by humans. It made me look at myths in a new light.’
Now, Nunn is working for the French government to compile tales that might pinpoint Pacific islands where scientists should look for warnings of earthquakes, volcanoes and catastrophic landslides. These include stories of deities who fish up islands from the water and others in which they are thrown back into the sea. ‘If you had asked me 10 years ago if there was value in local myths I would have said “not a lot”,’ added Nunn. ‘Since then I have had a Pauline conversion.’