“I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres.”
Shakespeare’s words, here spoken by the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father, represent high storytelling. But why do Shakespeare, and all the countless lesser writers, unfold their tales in the first place? And why have listeners been paying attention since we gathered around fires at the mouths of caves?
Some anthropologists are interested in these questions and for answers they have been studying hunter-gatherers, our distant ancestors and their few remaining populations today. Storytelling can be viewed as a type of cooperation, which anthropologists define as a behavior that benefits others. Cooperation has long puzzled evolutionary biologists. (If academics scratch their heads, imagine the apoplexy that altruism causes in devotees of Ayn Rand with their worship of selfishness.)
Daniel Smith, an anthropologist at University College London, and colleagues have been studying storytelling among the Agta, an indigenous population of hunter-gatherers in the Philippines. The Agta are believed to have descended from the first colonizers of the Philippines over 35,000 years ago. Their contemporary camps range in size from solitary dwellings to villages of up to 26 houses. Compared to non-Agta neighbors they are distinguished by short physique, tight curly hair, dark skin, and a predominantly foraging mode of subsistence. Their societies are characterized by social and gender egalitarianism.
Traditional Agta cosmology features no moralizing or punishing high-gods. Although many Agta nominally identify themselves as Christian, few regularly attend church or possess much knowledge about Christianity. Smith theorizes that in hunter-gather societies storytelling performs the same function of promoting cooperation that is transmitted by moralizing high-gods and organized religion in larger agricultural populations.
After spending extensive time among the Agta, Smith and colleagues concluded that their stories regulate social behavior by conveying how to act in different situations. Smith’s team recently published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.
They began with the hypothesis that given the universal practice and antiquity of storytelling, including among hunter-gatherer societies, storytelling probably has important adaptive value. Their research found that Agta stories do regulate group behavior and encourage cooperation by providing individuals with information about their society’s norms, rules and expectations, in such areas as marriage, interaction with in-laws, food sharing, hunting practices and taboos. The stories also dramatize consequences for violating rules. Furthermore, members of Agta groups with a greater proportion of skilled storytellers cooperate more readily and therefore are more successful in hunting and foraging.
The researchers share the Agta tale of The Sun and the Moon as an example of a story that promotes norms of equality and cooperation between the sexes, “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 to share the duty – one during the day and the other during the night.”
The Agta were also found to place high value on having good storytellers in their midst. Yay Shakespeare. When asked with whom they would most like to live, Agta favor gifted storytellers over those known for skill in hunting, fishing, tuber gathering or medicine. Skill at fishing came in second after storytelling – a finding that would be sure to please those storytellers Herman Melville and Ernest Hemingway.
Okay, so storytelling is good for the group, but what about the hunter-gatherer versions of ink-stained wretches themselves? Turns out they don’t do too badly either. The research found that superior storytellers have better fitness and higher reproductive success – the holy grail in evolutionary biology. Skilled Agta storytellers have an additional .53 living offspring. If you’re looking for a moral in that story, I suppose it might be that if you want more kids, first learn to spin a good yarn.
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