Firelight Sparks Stories

CavemenFireFire has been a hot subject among academics in recent years. In his 2010 book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, primatologist Richard Wrangham made the claim that learning how to control fire was the primary cause of our species’s evolutionary success. Not fire per se, but the cooking it made possible led to our digestive tract shrinking and the brain enlarging. After fire, time formerly occupied in chewing tough, raw food was better spent hunting food and socializing. Results were pair bonding, marriage and household formation. In Wrangham’s view, fire and cooking played a bigger role in our evolution than intelligence and adaptability.

Recently the anthropologist Polly Wiessner of the University of Utah, drawing largely on 40 years of her research with the Ju/’hoan hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari in southern Africa, published a paper that expands on the views of Wrangham and others. (Weissner’s paper, “Embers of Society: Firelight Talk among the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen”, was published in the Sept. 30, 2014 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and is available free on-line.)

Weissner agrees that yes, the control of fire and the capacity for cooking led to major anatomical and residential changes for early humans, going back more than a million years. But Wiessner has focused on the consequences of extending the day by firelight. Her data show major differences between day and night talk. Day talk centers on practicalities and sanctioning gossip; firelit conversations “evoke the imagination, help people remember and understand others, heal rifts of the day, and convey information about cultural institutions that generate regularity of behavior and corresponding trust.”

Wiessner’s views accord with the prevailing theories about the origins of drama. Around the fire outside a cave entrance is where we developed and spread myth through words, music and dance.

Warm, flickering, shadow-casting light provided by fire creates an ideal environment for storytelling. I don’t know how many young Americans still have the experience of camping in a wilderness and listening to stories at night around the campfire, as I did in the Boy Scouts. Those youthful totemic experiences connect us with a power that reaches far back, to ancient ancestors who sat outside caves watching sparks rise and vanish in the night air. Ghost stories, anyone?

Wiessner has found that stories are told in virtually all hunter-gatherer societies, and in most small-scale societies those myths and legends are told by firelight. She calls this storytelling [along with gifts] “the original social media.” She cites the Tlingit elders of the Pacific Northwest Coast who recounted stories that extended over four days with the fire blazing six to seven feet high.

“Narratives told by firelight include a gradient from tales of known people and events, to legends based on past known events, to folklore about humans and animals, to myths that address origins and order.” These stories provide vital links between individuals, group-specific sites, and ancestral beings. Wiessner’s research has found that firelit storytelling keeps cultural institutions alive, explicates relations between people, creates imaginary communities beyond the village, and traces networks for great distances. She quotes Benson Lewis, a Cibecue Apache: “Stories go to work on you like arrows. Stories make you live right. Stories make you replace yourself.”

Firelight is conducive to the imagination and  magical. Weissner describes the Ainu hunter-gatherers of Japan: “The daytime is for their activities and the night for deities and demons . . . Night [is] prime time for entrance into imaginary worlds of the supernatural.”

The next time we sit around a campfire (and aren’t you more likely to do that after reading this post?) we might stop to appreciate what a profound aspect of the human experience we are sharing.

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