The earliest Aboriginal Australian story I’ve personally seen “written down” unfolds along a dirt path in the Outback and wends its way to a small rock grotto. A colorful painting covers every interior surface of the cave. (Note: Photographs inside the cave are not permitted.)
This is the Pitjatnjatjara tribe's version of a Pleiades story that is told in numerous variations throughout the Outback.
As we walk in a line behind the elder whose tribe is the caretaker of the grotto, he tells about the hunter, Nirunja, who chased after the Kungkarangkalpa, a group of seven sisters who came down to Earth. The sisters eventually escaped back to the sky, where they became the constellation we call the Pleiades. Nirunja followed and became the constellation Orion, who chases them still.
At the same time, Nirunja is always in hot pursuit and the sisters are always fleeing. He is the crouched figure we Westerners think is just a rock. He is even now sliding through the crack in the grotto, the sisters even now hearing him just in time to run from the cave where they are still resting. The elder shows us their footprints.
Now we climb a small hill with him. The sisters are just ahead of us. They are always just ahead of us because they are always running from Nirunja. The elder can see them fleeing; we can only see stunted bushes.
We reach the top of the hill just above the grotto. The sisters are hiding from Nirunja, so he runs right past them and slides into the cave where the sisters are resting. What we think are small rocks on the hill are the sisters preparing to leap back into their sky home. The elder can easily point out the constellation of the Pleiades in the night sky because he sees them racing home every day.
The story painting is probably at least 20,000 years old; every family that lives in the area is responsible for repainting the portion of the story that belongs to them whenever it becomes too faded or worn. This responsibility has been passed down from one generation to the next for more than 900 generations.
To sit at the feet of an elder like a little child and hear him tell the story in present tense, the rock carapace glistening to life, and then to follow him as he follows the sisters and points out the bush that Nirunja even yet is hiding behind and waiting to pounce, is to step a little way into the Dreamtime and experience story through every sense.