In a groundbreaking revelation, researchers have unveiled the discovery of a vast submerged land to the north of contemporary Australia, that held up to 500,000 people. Submerged due to rising sea levels at the conclusion of the last glacial period, the researchers propose that echoes of this forgotten land resonate today within indigenous mythology.
Lost Through the Ages
Firstly, don’t be fooled by all the headlines, which “indicate” this is all a new discovery. While a vast area of submerged land has indeed been featured in a new research paper, oil and gas explorers have known about it for several decades. And over the last ten years archaeologists have recovered several examples of rock art, andin the region.
What is new, however, is that a researcher, and her colleagues, have reconstructed the topography of this submerged area of land in the Indian Ocean, which is estimated to have measured around 400,000 square kilometers. Known as the Northwest Shelf, Dr. Kasih Norman at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, hasfocusing on the peopling and archaeology of Australia and Indonesia.
Being a specialist in geochronology, submerged cultural landscapes, geospatial archaeology, and modern human dispersals, the researcher claims the lost land “was home to thriving populations of people for tens of thousands of years”.
Left: Satellite image of the submerged northwest shelf region. Right: Drowned landscape map of the study area. (US Geological Survey, Geoscience Australia/)
Delineating The Lost World
The new study presents 3D reconstructions of an inland sea which is described as “similar in size to Turkey’s Sea of Marmara.” An article inexplains that a vast freshwater lake was also found, with gorges, rivers and escarpments. This feature is said to be similar to those in in the Northern Territory of Australia.
Dr. Norman wrote in the paper that the area would have included “an inland sea, a freshwater lake, and river channels, all of which would have helped support thriving populations.” Norman explains that the reconstruction was based on recently released detailed sonar data byin which each pixel represents an area of 30 by 30 meters (99 by 99 feet).
Last ice age landscapes and environments of the northwest continental shelf of Australia. The region held an inland sea, vast escarpment regions with deep gorges and broad sloping plains with large rivers. Modern day examples of these landscape features are shown on the right. (US Geological Survey, Geoscience Australia, Pexels/)
Mining Deep Data
A resolution of 30 by 30 meters, per pixel, sounds pretty low res, right? Especially considering that a standard 4k television has around 8.3 million individual pixels in total. However, there are infinite variables when scanning at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, and Norman said 30 by 30 meters, per pixel, is a high enough resolution to be able “to talk about landscape features that were important to people. Furthermore, Dr. Peter Veth at the University of Western Australia said the new modelling was made possible because of “the new fine-grained palaeogeographic data available to the team”.
The study found that the great inland sea existed in a stable form between 27,000 and 17,000 years ago, and that a nearby 2000-square-kilometer freshwater lake was stable from 30,000 to 14,000 years ago. While it is speculation, Norman said the lake would have been “a vital refuge for people escaping the arid conditions of the Australian continent to the south”. And, it is estimated that the lost landscape could have supported “a population of between 50,000 and 500,000 people”.
Where Modeling Meets Mythology
Dr. Norman explains that sea levels began to rise by around a meter every 100 years, towards the end of the last. However, from 14,500 to 14,100 years ago it rose “4 to 5 meters every 100 years.” This means people would have actually witnessed rising sea levels, forcing them to move inland.
The team describe the submerged landmass as being “unlike any other area on the present-day continent.” They also said that “the oral histories” of coastalbelieved to date back over 10,000 years, speak of rising waters and drowned land. However, a lot of land has been lost to water in the last 10,000 years, so isn’t associating modern myths with this Ice Age event a step too far?
Tracking Ancient Migration Patterns
Suggesting that around 400 generations of people passed on this specific story of a rising sea, sounds ludicrous. Right? But according to an August 2023 paper, Professor Nunn and Dr. Reidmore than “30 submergence stories from all corners of Australia’s coastline, which describe an ancient and vastly different Australia”.
Professor Nunn wrote that a colleague at UniSC, Dr. Adrian McCallum, is actively looking at stories of when “K’gari was still connected to the mainland and people could walk across.” It is claimed that in the north of Australia, “lots of stories exist about times when the Great Barrier Reef was dry land and people walked out to the edge of it.” Dr. Adrian McCallum concludes that these stories must have been born “at least 10,000–11,000 years ago,” when the submerged land served as a bridge from Indonesia to Australia, perhaps answering how the first people got to Australia.
Top image: Drowned landscape map of the study area. Source: US Geological Survey, Geoscience Australia/