The Evolution of Storytelling: How we came to understand ourselves and our world

By Sally Mallam
Contributing Writer

“Stories work with people, for people, and always stories work on people, affecting what people are able to see as real, as possible, and as worth doing or best avoided. What is it about stories—what are their particularities—that enables them to work as they do? More than mere curiosity is at stake in this question, because human life depends on the stories we tell: the sense of self that those stories impart, the relationships constructed around shared stories, and the sense of purpose that stories both propose and foreclose.” — Arthur Frank, Letting Stories Breathe

Idries Shah remains one of the foremost contemporary authorities on stories, their function, value and dissemination. In 1979 he published a remarkable volume of 65 stories, entitled World Tales. These were collected from around the world – some from ancient sources, others from contemporary ones. Yet they all shared one common factor: each tale could be found in varying forms within the same framework across disparate cultures that appeared to have no connection with one another. 

In his introduction to this collection he asks, “How can it be that the same story is found in Scotland and also in pre-Columbian America? Was the story of Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp really taken from Wales (where it has been found) to the ancient East; and, if so, by whom and when?”

Stories, he says, are a:

“…form of culture that remains when nations, languages and faiths have long since died. There is an almost uncanny persistence and durability in the tale which cannot be accounted for in the present state of knowledge. Not only does it constantly appear in different incarnations which can be mapped – as the Tar-Baby story carried from Africa to America, and medieval Arabian stories from the Saracens in Sicily to the Italy of today – but, from time to time, remarkable collections are assembled and enjoy a phenomenal vogue: after which they lapse and are reborn, perhaps in another culture, perhaps centuries later: to delight, attract, thrill, captivate yet another audience.

 “Such was the great Panchatantra, the Far Eastern collection of tales for the education of Indian princes; the Jataka Buddhist birth-stories believed to date back two and a half thousand years; the Thousand and One Nights, known as ‘The Mother of Tales.’ Later came the collections of Straparola, Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare, and a dozen others which now form the very basis of the classical literature of Europe and Asia.”

He concludes that:

“…there is a certain basic fund of human fictions which recur, again and again, and never seem to lose their compelling attraction. Many traditional tales have a surface meaning (perhaps just a socially uplifting one) and a secondary, inner significance, which is rarely glimpsed consciously, but which nevertheless acts powerfully upon our minds.

“Working for 35 years among the written and oral sources of our world heritage in tales, one feels a truly living element in them which is startlingly evident when one isolates the ‘basic’ stories: the ones which tend to have travelled farthest, to have featured in the largest number of classical collections, to have inspired great writers of the past and present.”

With this in mind, we will look at some of the stories that we have touched upon in our exploration of the human journey, and what motivated them.

How did we come to tell stories?

“The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” Jonathan Haight The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

To understand where stories come from, we need to travel back at least 500,000 years in time, to long before the birth of our own species, Homo sapiens sapiens, which evolved in Africa around 300,000 years ago.

Our earlier ancestor Homo erectus evolved about 1.5 million years ago. As the name implies, erectus was the first hominid to walk upright, leaving arms and hands free not only for carrying and toolmaking but also, importantly in this context, for making gestures. We know that the earliest portable representations of the human figure were created by H. erectus. It has been suggested that a small quartzite figurine from Morocco, known as Tan-Tan, dating from between 500,000 and 300,000 years ago and at least 99 percent naturally occurring in its shape and form, may well have been safeguarded by our hominid ancestors. Because of their emerging self-consciousness, they were able to recognize that it resembled the female form and hence was most likely infused with meaning that was of a magical or religious significance. Though also largely natural, a tiny piece of volcanic rock known as the Venus of Berekhat Ram, found in Israel’s Golan Heights, was deliberately modified to represent the female form by H. erectus somewhere between 800,000 years and 300,000 years ago.

Erectus travelled the world, from Southern Europe to China and Indonesia. Some scholars suggest they had sufficient skill to construct seaworthy crafts capable of carrying 20 people, the minimum required to found their island settlements. They were hunters and stone toolmakers. A large collection of shells, very similar to each other and dated at about 500,000 years old, appear to be their tools, some of which were engraved with geometric designs.

Evidence from the erectus settlements, such as at Gesher Benot Ya’aqov in Israel, suggests not only that erectus controlled fire but that their settlements were planned. One area might be used for plant-food processing, another for animal-material processing, and yet another for communal life. We’ll never know exactly how these early hominids communicated, but it is obvious that they did. It is certain that they handed down experiences and knowledge, aided by facial gestures and vocal sounds. In this way, mimesis would eventually have led speech to emerge as the dominant mode of communication.

Scholars disagree as to whether H. erectus had language; a sufficiently elaborate mimetic language may have sufficed, though Daniel Everett, professor of global studies at Bentley University and author of How Language Began, points out that, lacking a FOXP2 gene, they would not have been able to make the same range of sounds as we do. Still, “They had what it took to invent language – and language is not as hard as many linguists have led us to believe,“ he said. Homo erectus spoke and invented the Model T Ford of language. We speak the Tesla form, but their Model T form was not a proto-language, it was a real language.”

Like us, Homo erectus used fire – so they very likely were the first ancestors to gather around a fire, cook, eat and share stories that passed on knowledge crucial to survival: stories related to hunting, and the spirit world.

Crucial developments

Our early ancestors did not always have the ability to speak, however, let alone tell stories. When compared with other primates, our larynx – or voice box – lacks two elements that other primates have: a vocal membrane – small, ribbon-like extensions of the vocal cords – and air sacs. The absence of these tissues, according to researchers, resulted in a stable vocal source that was critical to the evolution of human speech.

In human infants, the larynx sits up high in the nasal cavity, so babies can drink and breathe at the same time. At around three months of age, the larynx descends lower in the throat, making choking more of a hazard but speech possible (the register of male voices lowers when the larynx drops again slightly during puberty).

Based on discoveries of ancient hyoid bones, which are the bones that provide support for the larynx and anchorage for the tongue and other muscles required for speaking, researchers believe that as long as 300,000 years ago our ancestors had the ability to speak as we do now.

No other primate has a larynx low enough to produce sounds as complex as those our ancient ancestors made, and as we do today. There are now roughly 7,000 languages spoken in the world using an estimated 800-plus phonemes, the building blocks of language, all of which are available while infants are learning to select and use the sounds they will need to communicate in their own individual environment – that is, those that their mother and their caregivers use. 

Complex speech enabled cultural development, since it meant individuals could verbally share ideas and concepts. Neanderthals, whose hyoid and larynx are almost identical to those of early modern humans, also used symbolism and had what we would call religious ideas. They buried their dead with grave offerings, painted cave walls, wore ornaments and played music, so likely told stories as well. However, Neanderthal speech is thought to have had fewer vowels and consonants due to the hampering shape of their nasal cavity, which was adapted for living in cold climates.

One hundred thousand years ago at Blombos Cave on the South African coast, one of humanity’s first workshops flourished. It processed a liquified ochre-rich mixture – used for multiple purposes, including religious, medicinal, and for group identification – and stored it in abalone shells. Production involved a multi-step process, starting with a recipe for mixing the ingredients before applying heat. Ochre, bone, charcoal, grindstones, and hammerstones form a composite part of the production toolkit. Ochre was used in prehistory for thousands of years, in Africa, the Middle East, Australia and Europe. Given its longevity, we can only imagine that stories would have conveyed their importance from generation to generation and enabled knowledge of their preparation to be passed on. Through these stories, experiences would have been shared, describing not only why but what and how something is done, and, importantly, what steps to avoid.

Sharing our lives through gossip

We have always wanted to share experiences, to learn from and about each other, to tell our friends and family the latest news. A good percentage of what reaches us through the media is, for want of another word, gossip: chat about those like or unlike us, their lucky breaks and their misadventures. The evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar compared gossip to the grooming that primates engage in as a means of bonding; there is a sense of closer connection to those with whom we share spontaneous and often personal stories.

As anyone knows who has established residence in a new country or state – or even taken on a new job – local anecdotes, the frequent content of this kind of chatting, reveal potentially useful information about how a local culture and society operate. “Gossip allows you to test the waters – it enables you to know what community morality is,” says psychologist Maury Silver. “It makes it possible for a newcomer to probe the boundary lines of acceptable and unacceptable behavior.” Of course, people consciously trade information, converse on specific topics, or participate in negotiations, but social scientists have found that everyone is hardwired to pay attention to gossip, and to participate in it. Researchers estimate that anywhere from 65 percent to 80 percent of conversations are gossip. “We’re the descendants of people who were good at this,” said Frank McAndrew, a psychology professor at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. “In prehistoric times, people who were fascinated by the lives of other people were more successful.” Silver and fellow psychologist John Sabini note that gossip essentially involves “codes of conduct and moral rules embedded in concrete stories.”