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The Fires of the North

On the northern coast of the continent, including the western coast of Arnhem Land, people believed that their land had extended far towards the north in the past. They thought that they could have walked across to the far distant northern lands. A tremendous fire had taken possession of this country and then surging waters came down to control the great blaze. Water covered a large expanse of country and separated Australia from the other land mass. Although the waters had given everybody protection, the Aborigines considered it their duty to keep the fire alight because great evil would result if it were completely extinguished.

Miranen read in June, 1887 of inquiries by an explorer, David Lindsay, made at the request of the South Australian Government, then responsible for this northern region. David Lindsay travelled along the western part of Arnhem Land, exploring and following the coast. He was always told that the fires were kept alight by a neighbouring tribe but noted that the cliffs had a red and burnt appearance.

This belief is of particular interest as out knowledge of prehistory shows that the world passed through a succession of Ice Ages. The great sheets of ice made the sea level considerably lower than today and much more land was exposed. Aboriginal people have been in Australia for approximately 50 000 years. It was 25 000 years ago that this region entered the last Ice Age. With the subsequent melting of the ice which began some 10 000 years ago, the sea rose close to its present level and much less land was exposed. Between 8 000 and 6 500 years ago, the last bridge towards the north was covered by these rising waters. Torres Strait Islands and Papua New Guinea were separated from the mainland. This myth could have dated back to this period and explained to the people why much of their land was then covered with water.

Story courtesy of The Opal that turned into Fire (1994) Janet Mathews (comp), Isobel White (ed.), Magabala Books, Broome, Western Australia, pp. 36-38