Human observations of late Quaternary coastal change: Examples from Australia, Europe and the Pacific Islands

Patrick D. Nunn*, Ingrid Ward, Pierre Stéphan, Adrian McCallum, W. Roland Gehrels, Genevieve Carey, Amy Clarke, Margaret Cook, Paul Geraghty, David Guilfoyle, Bianca McNeair, Glen Miller, Elia Nakoro, Doc Reynolds, Lisa Stewart

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In the aftermath of the last ice age, when sea level rose along most of the world's coastline, the activities of coastal peoples were impacted by coastal submergence, land loss and sometimes isolation as offshore islands formed. In some parts of the world, there is clear evidence that people encoded their observations of postglacial sea-level rise into oral traditions that were communicated across hundreds of generations to reach us today in an intelligible form. In other contexts, people's observations of rising sea level are likely to have formed the foundations of ‘legends’ about undersea places and the peoples inhabiting them. For a selection of coastal sites in Australia and northwest Europe, this study discusses a range of contrasting situations in which culturally-grounded stories about coastal submergence, land loss and isolation plausibly recollect the nature and effects of postglacial sea-level rise. Using science-based histories of postglacial sea-level change, minimum ages are determined for each group of site-specific stories; in the case of Australia, these range from 7000–11,500 BP, for northwest Europe from 5500 to 9500 BP. For selected sites in the Pacific Islands, where human settlement about 3000 years BP post-dated the end of postglacial sea-level rise, localized submergence is recalled in traditional stories of local people. It is argued that studies of late Quaternary coastal evolution can often be filled out by adding details from stories preserved in local cultures, something which leads to a clearer picture of the human-societal impacts of coastal submergence and land loss than can be obtained from palaeoenvironmental reconstructions and geological evidence alone.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)212-224
Number of pages13
JournalQuaternary International
Early online date27 Sept 2022
Publication statusPublished - 20 Nov 2022

Bibliographical note

© 2022 Published by Elsevier Ltd.
This is an author-produced version of the published paper. Uploaded in accordance with the publisher’s self-archiving policy. Funding Information:
We acknowledge the Malgana people of Shark Bay and the Esperance Tjaltjraak people, whose traditional lands include the islands of the Recherche Archipelago, for stories from these areas. We acknowledge the Darumbal and Woppaburra peoples for information about the Keppels, and the Butchulla and Kabi Kabi (Gubbi Gubbi) peoples for information about K'gari.


  • Ancient stories
  • Land loss
  • Oral tradition
  • Palaeoenvironments
  • Sea level
  • Submergence

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