The lizard in the volcano

23 March 2020

In the aftermath of our own cataclysmic summer, turning to the accumulated wisdom, knowledge and cultural practices of Indigenous nations to address such things as land management and bushfire mitigation has become more important than ever. 

In the fifteenth century, on the island of Kuwae in what is now Vanuatu, a blue-tailed skink, secreted within a yam tuber by a man named Tombuku and buried at the base of a casuarina tree, unleashed the second-largest volcanic eruption of the past 2,000 years. It destroyed Kuwae and its remaining inhabitants and threw enough pulverized rock and sulfur dioxide gas into the atmosphere and stratosphere to trigger a significant depression of the average global temperature and the onset of the Little Ice Age.
Or so the stories go….

Chris Ballard, 2020, The lizard in the volcano: narratives of the Kuwae eruption. The Contemporary Pacific 

It might seem a stretch to claim that you can draw a line between a volcanic eruption on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa in 1815, and the development of Gothic literature, inspired by Mary Shelley’s novel ‘Frankenstein’. But we now know that the eruption of Mount Tambora triggered climatic anomalies across the world. The following year became known as the ‘year without a summer’ because of the impact of Tambora’s dust veil on North American and European weather; crops failed and livestock died, resulting in the worst famine of the century. 

Mary Shelley, along with her brother Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, were “summering” together in Switzerland in 1816 and, in the ensuing dour gloom, each of them produced masterpieces that reflected the dark mood of the times.

Possibly larger even than the Tambora eruption, and second only to the vast Samalas eruption of 1257-58 AD amongst eruptions of the last 2000 years is the eruption in the 1450s of the Kuwae volcano, located in what is now Vanuatu. Oral traditions still recounted today vividly describe how the eruption tore the island of Kuwae apart, leaving a gaping crater in the sea between the remnant islands of Epi and Tongoa. The Kuwae eruption is now widely credited with climatic impacts across the globe, depressing temperatures, devastating harvest yields, and possibly even influencing ocean circulation. If the initial field research and dating results confirm the scale and age of the Kuwae eruption, then a multi-year project will unfold with important implications for local history in Vanuatu, regional history in the Southwest Pacific including Australia, and global history.

CAP researchers Stuart Bedford and Chris Ballard are currently driving an exciting ARC-funded Discovery Project, along with Auckland University volcanologist Shane Cronin, to determine whether Kuwae matches the claims being made. Over the next three years they will take field-schools of graduate and undergraduate students to Tongoa to map the submarine crater, excavate settlements buried beneath and above the Kuwae ash, and collect detailed oral traditions of the eruption, to flesh out our understanding of this remarkable event. Like much of the research of the College, this project is transdisciplinary and holistic in both concept and approach. Archaeology, history and volcanology students will be given the opportunity to do fieldwork at the site of the eruption over coming months. 

In addition to the sheer scale and breadth of its impact, the Kuwae eruption is exceptional because it is remembered in considerable detail by living communities today on Tongoa and the other Shepherd Islands. More than 50 versions of this story have been recorded since outsiders first began to become aware of this volcanic eruption in around 1890. Some of them are fragmentary and others are complete, some are published and others have been documented on paper or in audio or video recordings and transcribed and translated for the first time from Nakanamanga, Namakura, Bislama, or French. The stories describe the moral cause of the eruption of Kuwae, and then the social and political consequences, as survivors fled south to the other Shepherd Islands and Efate. The precise sequence of the return of the chiefs and their communities to the remnant islands of Tongoa, Tongariki and Epi has set the conditions for life ever since, and Kuwae stories continue to feature centrally in court disputes to this day.

By studying, in situ, the ancient stories of these Pacific cultures, we hope to learn much more about this significant event: how it affected the environment, the people, the topography, the climate and the weather; how people and communities adapted; how it changed the course of history; and how we can learn from the science of what we uncover to plan strategies for the future. Chris Ballard.

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Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team