Mythic Friday: Some Myths are True!
The residents of Makin Island in the Republic of Kiribati tell a fantastic tale that holds a surprising truth
Welcome new subscribers to the free version of the Mythoversal Newsletter. As your host, I’d like to invite you this month to the Makin Atoll of the Gilbert Islands in the Pacific Ocean just north of the Equator, where the indigenous inhabitants tell stories similar to this…
Long ago, a powerful sea-king commanded the forces of the ocean itself. When the king demanded a tribute, the residents of Makin Island gathered up the best fruits of their land and rowed out to deliver them. But the fruits were rotten, and the enraged king sent waves of punishing destruction to hammer the offending village, each stronger than the one before, and each delivered with an enormous boulder.
The islanders begged forgiveness and managed to melt the king’s anger, but not until the third and most devastating wave was already on its way. With a final exertion of his power, the king blunted the assault and saved the island.
To this day, three boulders stand in a line off the island’s southern coast. Two are visible at low tide. The third, always submerged, represents the sea-king’s mercy.
Like many myths, this story offers an explanation for a natural phenomenon and provides insight into how a particular culture understands and interacts with the world. But unlike most myths, this story has now been scientifically proven to hold an element of truth.
Chris Baraniuk’s Hakai Magazine article describes the work of James Terry, a geoscientist who used the Makin islanders’ story as a starting point to guide his research into the origin of the three anomalous boulders.
In the myth, the stones arrived from elsewhere, were accompanied by strong waves, and those waves were not part of a storm. To Terry, those clues suggested a historical tsunami, an event that may have actually been experienced by the ancestors of the island’s modern storytellers.
Because the boulders are made of once-living coral, they can be dated by measuring the ratio of radioactive isotopes. Living coral accumulates uranium from the surrounding seawater, which decays into thorium at a constant rate after the coral dies.
Terry’s analysis showed that these three massive boulders were detached from the coral reef in 1576 and carried by a tsunami to their current location. Based on the size of the boulders and the energy required to move them, this tsunami would have been caused by a collapse of the seafloor off the Makin coast of about the same magnitude as the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011.
No matter how fantastical they may seem, sometimes myths hold a kernel of truth.
—Greg R. Fishbone, Mythology Disruptor
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