Why Do We Tell Stories? Hunter-Gatherers Shed Light on The Evolutionary Roots of Fiction
Daniel Smith, 7 Dec 17

Eldery member of the Agta hunter-gatherer tribe in the Philippines. Author provided

From gathering around the campfire sharing tales to binge watching the latest Netflix series, humans are, and have always been, inveterate producers and consumers of stories.

But why do we spend hours listening to and telling stories, often of exploits that never even happened? Clearly, from an evolutionary standpoint, this is time and effort that could be better spent foraging, reproducing or simply doing nothing to save energy.

Perhaps the human proclivity for storytelling is merely a byproduct of our evolved psychology – a series of inputs which manipulate and titillate our cognitive machinery. Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker fittingly refers to this as “evolutionary cheesecake”. But given the ubiquity of storytelling, it may perform an important adaptive role in human societies.

In a new study on hunter-gatherer societies, published in Nature Communications, my colleagues and I propose that storytelling may function as a mechanism to disseminate knowledge by broadcasting social norms to coordinate social behaviour and promote cooperation.

The type of knowledge in question is “meta-knowledge” – information about other people’s knowledge. This is, in fact, required for any society to function. For instance, it is not enough for people to know that they should drive on a certain side of the road, they also need to know that others possess that same knowledge. Stories may therefore act to ensure that all members of the group know, and consequently abide by, the “rules of the game” in a given society.

Moralising gods and organised religion may perform a similar function in post-agricultural populations by organising behaviour and promoting cooperation. However, these are often absent in hunter-gatherer societies, despite these groups being highly cooperative. We therefore proposed that hunter-gatherer storytelling may perform a comparable function to moralising gods in such societies.

Moral tales

To explore this idea, in collaboration with Agta Aid, we collected four stories among the Agta, a Filipino hunter-gatherer population with a high level of social and gender egalitarianism. Each story was aimed at regulating social behaviour by broadcasting how to act in different social situations.

One story, “The sun and the moon”, clearly communicated norms of sex equality and cooperation. “There is a dispute between the sun (male) and the moon (female) to illuminate the sky. After a fight, where the moon proves to be as strong as the sun, they agree in sharing the duty – one during the day and the other during the night.”

The Sun and the Moon: An Agta story about cooperation and equality between men and women. Paulo Sayeg, Author provided

We also looked at narratives from other hunter-gatherer societies from Southeast Asia and Africa, and discovered similar themes. Of 89 stories, around 70% concerned social behaviour, in terms of food-sharing, marriage, hunting and interactions with in-laws or members of other groups.

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