The other day I was watching an animal documentary which took the viewer through the stages of tortoise and turtle evolution. The tortoise evolved on land and then moved into the sea where it became the turtle. All of the land tortoises went extinct. Some turtles then decided that land looked appealing so they climbed out the sea and developed into tortoises. But these were not immediate descendants of the original tortoises, having been through these two significant evolutionary changes.
Turtles appeared 150 million years ago and as such represent an ancient ancestry. Up until fairly recently, their populations were abundant. Then we came along… We captured them for food, skin and shell. We captured them by accident. We destroy their nests and their habitats. We enter their world with boats and propellers. We are destroying them. And we see across the world that the turtle is the earth or is holding the earth. We see the turtle is a feminine creature, a mother goddess. So how we treat the turtle is reflective of how we treat the world more generally.
On a lighter note, leatherback turtles eat mainly jellyfish so don’t have the powerful muscles and jaw that some turtles do. Instead, they have a fascinating digestive system. Their esophagus is lined with short spines that point away from the mouth. This is so that they can contract the esophagus to push out all the excess water whilst also preventing the jellies from escaping.
In the past, turtles were an important part of coastal cultures and shown far more respect than of late. The significance of the turtle is highlighted in creation myths and other legends around the world.
In terms of Australia, we see dreamings which explain why the turtle has a shell. Some tell of a clever man who placed a shield over his body to avoid attack. Because of his inventiveness he was turned into a turtle where he would always be protected, be invulnerable. Others tell a similar story but the man in question has broken tribal law and is running away. He hid using his shields but as a punishment, he would have to spend the rest of his life as a turtle, unable to leave the water.
For some aboriginal groups, hunting of turtles as well as preparing and sharing the meat has great significance and is part of long cultural traditions. As well as providing important nutrients, the turtle also strengthens peoples connection to the sea.