Telling stories around a campfire may have begun the evolution of human culture and served as a form of ancient social media for the people who engaged in this activity. A new study examines the type of dialogue that occurs around a fire and whether that talk has aided human social and cultural development. Humans learned to master fire during the paleolithic era between one million and 400,000 years ago. Regularly keeping fires allowed early peoples to extend their day. No longer rendered inactive by darkness, people could gather in the fire’s glow to verbally, communally, process their lives.
Polly Wiessner, an anthropology professor at the University of Utah and lead author of the study writes, “little is known about how important the extended day was for lighting the embers of culture and society.” Wiessner’s theory is that telling stories around the fire led to cultural development. As going back in time to study oral traditions is impossible, she instead traveled to Africa to observe Kalahari bushmen who still live a nomadic hunter-gatherer life. The Kung bushmen live as humans have for 99 percent of their evolution. Their traditional lifestyle offers a glimpse into the way ancient people used their time and language to establish society. Wiessner calls the firelight stories the original social media and says they provided the medium for shared information, emotions and entertainment which led to social bonding. The study, “Embers of Society: Firelight Talk among the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen,” explores the differences between daytime and nighttime topics of discourse.
Daytime conversations enforced social codes but nighttime discussions created culture and community. During sunlight hours people spoke of work with complaints, criticisms and gossip which function to regulate societal bonds. Of course, economic and practical issues were at the forefront such as “ what is for dinner.” Besides managing resources and relationships, people did tell jokes and a few stories; but after the sun went down and people gathered in the intimate glow of a fire, 81 percent of interactions were stories with only a scattering of complaints and economic discussions.
Gossip and criticism keep people in their place by expressing dissatisfaction with behaviors. People modify behaviors so they do not become the subjects of disparagement. Conversely, telling stories builds a shared culture, reinforces values, and engenders community. Storytelling is a form of teaching. Personal experience or ancestral experience is relayed through narrative because humans find information more understandable in the guise of a story. Whether it is science, faith or history, narrative makes knowledge more plausible and easier to remember. Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal, claims that stories help to grow neurological connections in humans. Stories allow people to imaginatively work through real-life problems and prepare for various situations. Gottschall insists that stories build societies because they encourage members to behave ethically. He believes that skillful storytelling was essential for the success of early societies. Telling stories around a campfire fire may have begun human cultural evolution and served as an ancient form of social media.
Wiessner also found that the nighttime storytelling excited neurons, and that daytime and evening conversation differed dramatically. Wiessner observed that the evening conversations reinforced social institutions and values. The Kung value society based on equality, arranged marriage, kinship, sharing food and providing mutual assistance. All these come out during their firelight chats.
In addition to societal issues, talk around the campfire often turned to spiritual matters. People discussed faith, religion and how the spirit world affects the human world. Lengthening the day and sitting around a fire seemed to give people time to reflect on their lives and about the huge questions of existence. People also remembered loved ones who had passed and shared information about people far away which extended the community bonds. To further cement cultural ties people would sing and dance around the fire. Just as stories, these pursuits built a common culture.
How is electricity different from firelight? Days are extended longer than ever but now people tend to do work after dark rather than spend time bonding with family and community. Humans take advantage of the light to get more done. A fire allows wakefulness but is not conducive to finishing chores. However, many people still use the evening hours for stories: reading a book to a child, getting lost in a novel or watching TV or movies. When done communally, sharing these stories can still reinforce values. Families can discuss the scenarios depicted on the screen to transmit morals, ideals and judgments. The human need for shared stories seems alive and well.
Telling stories around a fire may have begun the evolution of human culture. Ancient firelight talks conveyed information about cultural institutions which helped establish regularity of behavior and social trust, just as electronic social media does today. Storytelling fired human imagination and aided the creation of wide societal networks and connection between people, the past, the future and the spiritual world. Campfire tales were integral to human cultural development.
By: Rebecca Savastio