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Vanishing Islands processes of island disappearance witnessed by humans 8 It could be argued that humans have a natural tendency to imagine uncharted lands. The reasons for this lie deep within the psyche of individuals of every ethnicity; imagined worlds appear to be a universal archetype.1 In 1687, in the empty ocean more than 3,000 kilometers west of Chile, Edward Davis imagined that he saw islands within an area 15 kilometers across in the isolated Southeast Pacific [additions in brackets mine]. about two hours before day we fell in with a small low, sandy island and heard a great roaring noise, like that of the sea beating upon the shore, right ahead of the ship. Whereupon the sailors, fearing to fall foul upon the shore before day, desired the captain to put the ship about, and to stand off until the day appeared; to which the captain gave his consent. So we plied off till day and then stood in again with the land, which proved to be a small flat island [later named Davis’ Land], without any guard of rocks. We stood in within a quarter of a mile of the shore and could see it plainly, for it was a clear morning, not fogy or hazy. To the westward about 12 leagues [~67 kilometers], by judgment, we saw a range of high land, which we took to be islands, for there were several partitions in the prospect. This land seemed to reach about 14 or 16 leagues [78–9o kilometers] in a range, and there came great flocks of fowls. I and many more of our men would have made this land and have gone ashore on it, but the captain would not permit us.”2 As Davis’ Land, the sighting of these islands reignited the search by Europeans for Terra Australis (see chapter 7) and remains today a potent piece of evidence in the armory of those writers who imagine, incorrectly, that Davis’ Land was/is the peak of a submerged continent or, more prosaically, the last traces of a sinking continent.3 It is unfortunate that neither Davis nor any member of his crew landed on Davis’ Land. More likely than a bedrock island, Davis’ Land, if it was ever more than a mirage or a school of breaching fish, could have been vanishing islands 131 a series of pumice mats produced by a shallow underwater eruption from the East Pacific Rise, that great range of volcanic mountains that runs beneath the surface of the Pacific from the Gulf of California to the fringe of Antarctica (shown in Figure 2.3). The purpose of discussing this story in such detail here is to underscore how difficult it sometimes is to interpret historic accounts. The debate about Davis’ Land has raged for decades and is destined to remain unresolved simply because there is insufficient information to enable any final judgment about it. The same can be said for many historical accounts of natural phenomena, particularly those from oral traditions that were written down a long time after the events described occurred, as is the case with many of those described in this chapter and the next. There is no evidence that any continents have disappeared or become otherwise hidden anywhere in the Pacific (or elsewhere) during the time of the region’s human occupation or that they will become so in the foreseeable future, so this chapter, together with chapters 9 and 10, considers only islands. Islands That Disappeared as a Result of Sea-Level Rise On the scale of a human life span we may not be aware of long-term sea-level changes, yet there is abundant evidence to show that these have taken place throughout the time that people have occupied the Pacific region (see chapter 2). More than that, sea-level changes have impacted human societies by changing the extent of the land available for occupation and altering the magnitude and nature of the food resource base, with sometimes-profound consequences.4 The native Australians of Arnhem Land in the north of the country trace their origins to an island to the northeast named Baralku, generally regarded, on the grounds that it cannot be located today, as a mythical island. In his 1998 tour de force about the effects of postglacial sea-level rise on the inhabitants of Southeast Asia, Eden in the East, Stephen Oppenheimer drew attention to similarities between that tradition and those of people in India and island...


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