The Role of Myth in Anthropogeny

Friday, May 19, 2023


Why are humans a compulsively storytelling species? Why especially do we invent stories, why do we tell one another stories that both teller and audience know to be untrue? Why do many of us come to believe some invented stories? What difference has our compulsion to tell stories made to us as individuals, societies, and a species? How do we understand stories so seemingly effortlessly?

For more than a century, folklorists have indexed a vast number of the world’s folkloric narratives according to varying structures (i.e. tale types) and to discrete elements (i.e. motifs) that commonly appear across cultures. This talk will introduce and analyze several examples of motifs indexed in folklorist Stith Thompson’s system as, "A1200 — A1699. Creation and ordering of human life” and “A1700 — A1799. Creation of animal life.” I will highlight certain narratives that feature stories of human and animal origins, such as a folktale from northern India in which a creator makes humans out of butter only to have the butter melt (A1226.1.), a Finnish folktale in which gulls were first formed from a cat that had been brought to the middle of the ocean on the back of a fish (A1945.1.), tales from Native American communities in which humans are descended from a marriage between a human being and an animal (A1224.0.1.), and a folktale from southwest China in which men are monkeys who have lost their tails (A1224.5.).

Ultimately, I ask whether stories about origins (human origins or otherwise) might constitute a genuine cultural universal? And if so, what might the folkloric representations of human origins say about a contemporary science of anthropogeny?

Some 350 to 400,000 years ago when our ancestors gained control of fire, the day was extended to provide many hours for social interaction, undisturbed by economic activities. How were those hours spent in societies that only had firelight after nightfall? In most preindustrial societies, music, dance, healing and storytelling fill the darkness. Myths and legends create common understandings on such matters as the origins of humans, social groups, rituals or features of the landscape. Hilarious trickster traditions explore the successes and failures of those who have the pluck to break with social norms. Stories about the adventures of real people add other dimensions, a topic I will address here. Hunter-gatherers like the Ju/’hoansi of Botswana and Namibia live in a small world with residential villages of 25-40 people. Nonetheless, they have complex cultural institutions regulating marriage, property, kinship, spirituality and the vast exchange networks that open access to the resources of others up to 200 km away. Drawing on material from 174 day and night conversations and 68 night stories, I will propose that firelit stories transmit the ‘big picture’ of cultural institutions that bind and create ‘imaginary communities’ composed of people who cooperate but do not live contiguously in space. They portray kinship connections and the attributes of those near and far. They play an essential role in evoking empathy for the perspectives and experiences of others, as men, women and children sit around the fire biting their nails, rolling with laughter or crying over tragedies. Firelit stories broaden knowledge, expand understandings and portray the cultural institutions that bind ‘imaginary communities’ over hundreds of kilometers. They put listeners on the same emotional base and let tensions of the day fade with the embers.

Animals and tricksters are highly prominent beings in the mythology of the San Bushmen of southern Africa, as well as of hunter-gatherers in other regions of the world. Their actions and interactions provide the plot lines for most of the stories people tell about myth time (a time that, according to their world view both precedes historical time and continues on, and is accessible to people, up to the present). Why are these two beings so preeminent in San mythology and storytelling? Is there a connection between the two beings? My talk deals with these two questions and the answer I suggest reveals a deep – and deep-rooted –mystical connection also between animals and humans.

The hunting-gathering people that provide the cultural context for my talk are the San Bushmen of southern Africa, amongst whom I have done ethnographic field work. I will also consider hunter-gatherers from other parts of the world, both from present or recent times and from prehistory. These considerations may shed some light on certain aspects of prehistoric cave paintings (and, via these, of prehistoric mythology).

The hunting hypothesis proposes that the dietary shift to meat procurement was the catalyst favoring a suite of transformative human biological and behavioral adaptations. Evolutionary changes in the human diet are associated with the emergence of food sharing, the division of labor and pooled energy budgets. With cooperation at its center, this complex of traits sets hominins on a path distinct from our closest relatives. The historic weight given to hunting as a prime mover in the social and evolutionary sciences, also assumes the primacy of men in shaping one of humanity’s most seminal characteristics—our capacity for cooperation.

To balance this discussion, I revisit several misconceptions linked to the hunting hypothesis. First, preservation biases in the archaeological record and dietary accounts of hunter-gatherers challenge the emphasis on hunting, which ignores the many ways women and children support nutrient diversity and food processing, traits that equally distinguish the human diet. I review these important contributions, and by implication the significance of women and children in supporting these evolutionary changes and their dietary advantages. Second, claims often are made that hunting favored males to band together and form alliances, selecting for gender differences in cooperative and social networking abilities. I reevaluate this assumption by considering the strong cooperative and economic bonds that form between mothers and children, and the many ethnographic examples demonstrating that it is women who more often forage in groups and provide the majority of daily calories.

Revising myths about the centrality of hunting to more closely reflect the archaeological and ethnographic records has important implications for updating the entrenched emphasis on male behaviors. New paleoanthropological and ethnographic data challenge older arguments and suggest alternative explanations for the complex of traits typically tied to hunting (e.g. family formation, central place foraging, the division of labor, long childhoods, high fertility). My research indicates that female cooperation includes several critical components that influence human dietary and life history success.

Here’s a bit of human folklore: Humans have been telling stories about animals as long as humans have been telling stories. In other words, for a really long time. One particular story humans tell about animals is the one about how, with enough care and patience (and perhaps enough scientific ingenuity) humans might one day listen to the stories animals themselves have to tell. Some folks see this story as nonfiction, a truth about animals manifest in the dance of bees, the grunts of monkeys, the antics of their dogs and cats, or the signs produced by trained gorillas. To be sure, most mainstream scientists politely demur, certain that any claim that animals can tell stories is surely the stuff of fiction, little more than human projection. But yet, almost daily, scientists who study animal cognition paint an ever-richer portrait of their minds. Here’s a sampling: chimpanzees are grieving over their dead, hunting with spears, imagining what each other are thinking, filming autobiographical documentaries, negotiating over food, and making dolls; orangutans are playing charades and suffering from self-doubt; crows are validating Aesop's fables, reasoning about each other's beliefs and planning their breakfast; parrots are predicting their own demise; elephants are painting self-portraits; gorillas are recounting tales of their childhood traumas; even rats are giving their all to liberate their peers from distress. And so, caveats aside, the emerging scientific picture of the animal mind looks indistinguishable from our own. In this talk, I attempt examine these conflicting views. Despite the fact that animals do not sit around fires telling stories, are their minds organized in story-like formats? Do their mental representations of the events of the past, present and future constitute general narratives? Do they construct and reflect on their own personal narratives? And finally, and perhaps more paradoxically, are our scientific answers to these questions a better reflection of the internal world of animals or the humans who study them?

As the response to global warming leads towards a fundamental recalibration of our relationship to fire it is timely to look back into deep time at the origins of our entanglement with combustion. This brief talk draws on my experience working on the recovery of early evidence for human use of fire at the sites of Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa and Evron Quarry, Israel. I will argue that we should not think of an origin of human use of fire but rather of an emerging relationship between humans and fire. The hallmark of this relationship is that fire draws together technology and society; material and the intangible; adaptation and the sacred.

In the foundational texts of Western civilisation (the Bible, Iliad), plagues are symbols of divine retribution, signifying Godly displeasure with human misdeeds. But in Thucydides’ classic account of the mysterious plague that swept Athens in 430 BC, Camus’s La Peste, and Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, literary accounts of plagues and pandemics are also morality tales and metaphors for the dissolution of the social bonds necessary for the functioning of modern societies. In this talk, I bring the history of plague writing into dialogue with the history of trust, to examine what plague texts tell us about our foundational myths and our obsession with calamities and crises.

Political, financial and environmental crises coupled to the rise of social media have, in recent years, created a perfect storm of mis- and disinformation that leverage long standing reservoirs of belief within and across communities. These stories on social media mirror face-to-face storytelling and other storytelling environments in that they allow for the negotiation of cultural ideology (norms, beliefs, values), yet they also change the scope, speed and amplification of that storytelling. Importantly, storytelling has real world effects, and often motivates people to take action. Anchoring our work in folklore theory, we develop a model of stories-told-as-true and focus our work on threat narratives. We explore the rise of vaccine hesitancy, the emergence of conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate and QAnon, as well as the storytelling that led up to the January 6th insurrection. We present a graphical model of the underlying narrative frameworks, estimated from the data itself, and show how various network based methods can form the basis for understanding the narrative coherence—and their possible outcomes—even when the discussions on social media are incomplete and noisy, as conversations in real life often are.