Project

Literary Prehistory

Goal: The study of art customarily begins with an examination of its prehistory—the forms that it took and the contexts in which it was produced prior to recorded history. Examining a behavior in its context of origin illuminates continuities of form and use between the past and the present, which is critical to understanding motivation and function. Literary theory derived solely from written texts proceeds from an incomplete and possibly inaccurate set of assumptions about the nature of storytelling. Accordingly, this project examines the origins of storytelling by examining this behavior in a foraging context, in which stories were transmitted orally. One salient cross-cultural pattern in forager oral tradition is that “those who listened were entertained while collecting the experiences of others with no direct cost” (Wiessner 2014:14029). That is, stories appear to transmit generalizable knowledge--information that is applicable beyond the original learning context to other places, times, and situations (Csibra & Gergely 2009). An important goal of this project, then, is to test the hypothesis that forager storytelling subserves pedagogical aims.

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Michelle Scalise Sugiyama
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Over a hundred years ago, Sapir (1910:455) noted that animal story songs were widespread across Native American cultures. Herzog further noted that these songs occur in a wide variety of animal tales, but are most common “in the myth cycles dealing with the exploits of an animal trickster or animal culture hero” (1933:2). At the time, the precise distribution of this song type was unknown, although Herzog claimed that examples could be found from nearly every region of North America. Ethnographic evidence suggests that animal characters feature prominently in the story traditions of hunting-and-gathering peoples across the globe, and it is not unusual for these characters to speak in song. Thus, rather than being a North American phenomenon, this form of expression may be characteristic of hunter-gatherer oral tradition more broadly, begging the question of why so many cultures have gravitated toward the same, highly distinctive stylistic choice. The answer may lie in the lyrics: given that making a living by foraging requires considerable zoological expertise, it is possible that animal song lyrics encode traditional ecological knowledge (Fernandez-Llamazares & Lepofsky 2019:338). Specifically, this art form may serve as a mnemonic strategy that scaffolds the storage and transmission of information about animal traits and behavior. As a preliminary test of this hypothesis, this essay reviews evidence that animal story songs occur across forager cultures and that their lyrics reference traits of ecologically important species.
Michelle Scalise Sugiyama
added an update
We are pleased to announce the launch of Talking Stories: Encyclopedia of Traditional Ecological Knowledge. This open-access digital textbook explores universal forms of symbolic behavior (e.g., storytelling, art, song, dance, ritual, games) as ratchets that supported the development of cumulative culture. For most of their evolution, humans have made their living by hunting and gathering, which requires extensive ecological knowledge. In the oral cultures in which humans evolved, symbolic behaviors provided mnemonic frameworks for storing this knowledge, rules for faithfully copying it, and regular occasions for refreshing and transmitting it. Talking Stories presents an overview of this important milestone in human evolution.
Each page on the website is a “chapter” in the textbook, which is divided into three main components: a set of lessons on the origins of literature and natural history, an encyclopedia of traditional hunter-gatherer narratives and the ecological knowledge they encode, and a blog on complementary modes of oral knowledge transmission. The site is aimed at reducing textbook costs by providing open-access reading materials, as well as links to additional educational resources.
 
Michelle Scalise Sugiyama
added 9 research items
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the legalization of contraception in the U.S., and the release of a Mad Max sequel with a woman in the hero role. What do these things have in common?
Humans are able to imagine and engineer “adaptively structured learning environments”—that is, to create timely, tailored learning opportunities when naturally occurring opportunities are lacking, impractical, or dangerous. Games are a case in point: consisting of rules and imaginative frameworks superimposed on innate play behaviors, games are human inventions that facilitate the acquisition of practical skills. Access at: https://blogs.uoregon.edu/talkingstories/2021/04/15/gamesaslearningenvironments/
Evidence suggests that warfare is an ancient part of human life, dating back to when all humans lived as hunter-gatherers. Scientists who study the evolution of the human mind have paid considerable attention to the challenges that warfare posed for men and how it might have shaped male minds, but not to the effects that it had on women. This begs the question: What were these effects, and how might they have shaped female psychology?
Michelle Scalise Sugiyama
added an update
The Scalise Sugiyama Human Animal Lab is pleased to announce the launch of a new open educational resource, Talking Stories. This website is an encyclopedia of traditional ecological knowledge encoded in hunter-gatherer storytelling. It explores storytelling as one of humanity’s earliest information technologies: in the absence of writing, storytelling and other symbolic behaviors (e.g., art, music, dance, ritual, games) provided mnemonic frameworks for storing local ecological knowledge, rules for faithfully copying it, and regular occasions for refreshing and transmitting it. The site is designed for use by educators seeking to integrate traditional Indigenous literature and natural history into their courses, and by students and researchers interested in the origins of literature, natural history, and cultural transmission.
 
Michelle Scalise Sugiyama
added a research item
For most of their existence as a species, humans have lived in oral cultures, transmitting their accumulated wisdom viva voce. For novices, learning from others is believed to greatly reduce the costs and dangers of learning through firsthand experience (Boyd et al. 2011). However, it is not without risk: from the perspective of the receiver, a major problem posed by social learning is assessing the reliability of transmitted information. Fictional narrative, involving the conscious transmission of counterfactual information, is a glaring example of this problem. If forager story repertoires are teachings, we would expect them to consist of factual accounts. Yet the vast majority of narratives in forager story repertoires are myths, and as such are peppered with counterfactual propositions. We are thus faced with a seeming paradox: how can fiction transmit truthful information?
Michelle Scalise Sugiyama
added 5 research items
The origins of literature are an academic no-man’s-land. Literary study sidesteps the question by equating the emergence of literature with the emergence of the earliest written texts (e.g., The Epic of Gilgamesh). Psychology explores the cognitive foundations of literature (e.g., Schank 1990) but does not concern itself with the socio-ecological context in which it emerged. Cultural anthropology is chiefly interested in storytelling vis-s-vis ritual, worldview, and belief systems, and has thus tended to focus on myth. Classic and linguistic approaches focus on the metrics and other performative aspects of oral tradition (e.g., Lord 1960, Hymes 1981), while folklore tends to focus on comparatively recent oral storytelling traditions that managed to survive the transition to industrialized life (e.g., fairy tales, tall tales). Because of their tightly circumscribed foci, none of these disciplines is charged with addressing the origins of the behavior they study. In contrast, the study of art customarily begins with an examination of its prehistory—the forms that it took and the contexts in which it was produced prior to recorded history. There is good reason for this: examining a behavior in its context of origin illuminates continuities of form and use between the past and the present, which is critical to understanding motivation and function. Literary theory derived solely from written texts proceeds from an incomplete and possibly inaccurate set of assumptions about the nature of storytelling. Accordingly, this essay reviews the origins of storytelling to lay the groundwork for a more comprehensive theoretical approach.
Research to date has focused on fitness costs that coalitional aggression imposes on men and how these may have shaped male cognitive design. This study investigated whether warfare may have shaped female cognitive design by identifying fitness costs that lethal raiding imposes on women and determining how widespread these fitness costs are across a sample of forager and forager-horticulturalist societies. To this end, archaeological and ethnographic accounts of lethal raiding were used to generate a list of fitness costs suffered by women in warfare. Five costs were identified: woman killed, woman captured, offspring killed, mate killed/captured, and adult male kin killed/captured. A cross-cultural sample of forager and forager-horticulturalist oral traditions was then surveyed for the presence of these costs. Results suggest that lethal raiding has recurrently imposed fitness costs on women, and that female cognitive design bears reexamination in terms of the motivational and decision-making mechanisms that may have evolved in response to them. This study differs from previous studies of lethal raiding by addressing the lack of comparative research on the fitness costs of warfare for women, by examining a wider range of fitness costs, and by using oral tradition as a database.
Stories that reference plants occur throughout indigenous oral traditions. It is widely recognized among local and academic knowledge holders that such stories store and transmit valuable ethnobotanical knowledge. However, there has been little detailed investigation of the quantity and kinds of information conveyed, or the ways in which this information is encoded in oral texts. In this paper, we explore in detail the nature of this transmitted ethnobotanical knowledge, investigating the extent to which stories encode and convey information useful for identifying, locating, harvesting, processing, and predicting availability of important plant resources. Using an existing collection of traditional narratives from the Weenhayek of the Bolivian Gran Chaco, we searched for stories about wild plants and plant products. This search yielded a sample of 40 narratives, which were analyzed for the presence of information about plant characteristics, associated ecological cues, habitat and distribution, management, extraction and processing, availability, uses, and worldview (i.e., prescriptions and proscriptions related to plant management, extraction, processing, or use). Results are discussed in light of the constraints imposed by human attentional and memory systems, and their implications for knowledge storage and transmission.
Michelle Scalise Sugiyama
added a research item
Under conditions where the exchange of information is largely unrestricted, one measure of a story or genre's popularity is its pervasiveness, which may be assessed cross-culturally (e.g., how widespread the story is across societies) or intra-culturally (e.g., the percentage of group members who know the story). This definition embraces a host of motivations for telling or listening to a story (e.g., instruction, manipulation , curiosity, entertainment), many of which are subsumed by the criterion of relevance: when people have an interest in telling and/ or listening to a given story, we may say that the story has relevance for them. Story relevance is likely rooted in local ecology: stories that address problems the audience may experience in real life may be expected to attract widespread interest because the information they contain is potentially useful. Conversely, stories that do not address such problems may attract less interest because they have no practical application. This essay develops the hypothesis that relevance affects story pervasiveness by examining two popular story genres from two very different socioeconomic systems: the transformer tale and the bedtime story. The former is widespread across forager groups but absent in modern industrialized societies, while the latter is widespread across modern societies but glaringly absent from forager oral tradition. The principle of relevance would predict that each story addresses a problem that is specific to the ecology in which it is current. As we will see, this is the case: the problem addressed by the transformer is absent from modern industrialized societies, and the problem addressed by the bedtime story is absent from forager societies.
Michelle Scalise Sugiyama
added a research item
Quantitative research shows that foragers depend heavily on social learning to acquire practical skills and knowledge, but the means of transmission are poorly understood. For example, many foraging peoples utilize hundreds of plant species--which demands extensive knowledge of growth habits, properties, and applications--but how they acquire this knowledge is largely unknown. Tellingly, stories about plants occur across forager oral tradition, and indigenous informants identify storytelling as an important means of knowledge acquisition. If stories transmit ethnobotanical knowledge, they should contain information useful for identifying, predicting availability of, locating, harvesting, and processing important plant resources. We tested this prediction using a collection of traditional narratives recorded among the Wichí of the Bolivian Gran Chaco. The collection was searched for stories about wild plants, yielding a sample of 39 narratives. Stories were then analyzed for information about plant characteristics, habitat, distribution, management, processing, timing, and uses, as well as associated ecological cues and prescriptions/proscriptions. Data was checked against the ethnographic record to ascertain whether the botanical information in the stories corresponded to documented practices. Results indicate that Wichí oral tradition encodes practical botanical knowledge and that, by implication, storytelling is a form of social learning in humans.
Michelle Scalise Sugiyama
added a research item
Western conservation research is increasingly recognizing the value of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) for preserving and managing wild resources. Because indigenous peoples are increasingly faced with the loss of their language and traditional subsistence practices, documentation of TEK is urgently needed. However, it is unclear how this knowledge is stored and transmitted. In this study, we tested the hypothesis that stories are an important means of TEK storage and transmission in indigenous cultures. Focusing on the botanical knowledge of the Wichí of the Bolivian Gran Chaco, we predicted that their oral tradition would contain stories about important plant resources, and that these stories would contain information useful for locating, identifying, extracting, processing, and/or predicting the availability of these resources. To test this prediction, we surveyed a collection of traditional Wichí narratives (n = 319) for stories about wild plants; the search yielded 39 plant stories, which were analyzed for information about characteristics, habitat, distribution, ecological cues, management, seasonality, processing, and uses. All 39 stories contained the predicted information, which was cross-checked against the Wichí ethnographic record to ascertain that it matched actual plant use. Results suggest that oral tradition is instrumental in the transmission of Wichí practical ethnobotanical information, and may be useful for reconstructing the TEK of other indigenous peoples facing cultural disruption. Future research will analyze the oral traditions of other first nations to determine how widespread this phenomenon is.
Michelle Scalise Sugiyama
added a research item
In her 1966 essay, “Shakespeare in the Bush,” the anthropologist Laura Bohannan challenged the received wisdom that great literary works speak to universal human concerns and conditions and, by implication, that human nature is the same across cultures. Her claim was based on a sample size of one culture: the Tiv of West Africa. In the course of summarizing the plot of Hamlet for a small group of Tiv villagers, she found that their interpretation of the play was different from hers, and took this as evidence of fundamental inter-cultural psychic differences. In so doing, she made two misguided assumptions: (1) that there is a homogeneous “Western” interpretation of the play; and (2) that cultural variation is prima facie evidence of the absence of human universals. My 2003 essay on the subject (Scalise Sugiyama, “Cultural Variation”) addressed the second of these assumptions, showing that cultural variation and cognitive universality are not mutually exclusive phenomena. This becomes apparent when the issue is framed in terms of the ecological niche to which humans are adapted. In the present essay, I supplement my earlier analysis by explaining the role that culture plays in the human ecological niche, and discussing some of the shared reasoning and motivational systems exhibited by Bohannan and the Tiv in their reaction to Hamlet.
Michelle Scalise Sugiyama
added a research item
Stories consist largely of representations of the human social environment. These representations can be used to influence the behavior of others (consider, e.g., rumor, propaganda, public relations, advertising). Storytelling can thus be seen as a transaction in which the benefit to the listener is information about his or her environment, and the benefit to the storyteller is the elicitation of behavior from the listener that serves the former’s interests. However, because no two individuals have exactly the same fitness interests, we would expect different storytellers to have different narrative perspectives and priorities due to differences in sex, age, health, social status, marital status, number of offspring, and so on. Tellingly, the folklore record indicates that different storytellers within the same cultural group tell the same story differently. Furthermore, the historical and ethnographic records provide numerous examples of storytelling deliberately used as a means of political manipulation. This evidence suggests that storyteller bias is rooted in differences in individual fitness interests, and that storytelling may have originated as a means of promoting these interests.
Michelle Scalise Sugiyama
added 2 research items
Narrative is a species-typical, reliably developing, complex cognitive process whose design is unlikely to have emerged by chance. Moreover, the folklore record indicates that narrative content is consistent across widely divergent cultures. I have argued elsewhere that a storyteller may use narrative to manipulate an audience's representations of the social and/or physical environment to serve his or her own fitness ends. However, my subsequent research suggests that such manipulation results from a broader selection pressure which narrative effectively alleviates: information acquisition. By substituting verbal representations for potentially costly first-hand experience, narrative enables an individual to safely and efficiently acquire information pertinent to the pursuit of fitness in local habitats. If this hypothesis is true, narrative should be rich with information useful to the pursuit of fitness. One class of information integral to the accomplishment of this task is foraging knowledge. In this paper, then, I present evidence that foraging peoples use narrative to transmit subsistence information: specifically, I demonstrate how various narrative devices (e.g., setting, description, mimicry, anthropomorphism) are used to communicate foraging knowledge.
Literary scholarship remains largely oblivious to important scientific advances in the understanding of human cognition and behavior. This essay reviews biological and anthropological evidence contradicting the oedipal model, and presents an evolution-based analysis of the Oedipus myth.
Michelle Scalise Sugiyama
added a research item
Among foragers, hunting depends on extensive knowledge of animal behavior, habitat, and characteristics. This is evinced in the use by hunters of “personality profiles”--synopses of distinctive animal traits--to facilitate prediction of animal behavior. Tellingly, stories that identify and describe distinctive animal traits appear recurrently in forager oral tradition. These tales are often mythical, but describe actual traits, and may thus serve as a database of zoological knowledge stored and retrieved as “personality profiles.” If this hypothesis is correct, animal tales should: (1) be present across forager oral tradition; (2) foreground animals that are significant resources, hazards, competitors, or ecological cues in local habitats; and (3) describe traits that are useful for identifying, predicting availability of, locating, stalking, killing, and/or avoiding dangerous encounters with animals. This study presents cross-cultural evidence in support of these predictions.
Michelle Scalise Sugiyama
added a research item
What we know today as literature began as oral tales told in small hunter-gatherer bands. Several lines of evidence indicate that storytelling has long been an integral part of human experience. Our species, Homo sapiens, emerged around 200,000 years ago, at which point language was firmly in place. The recent finding that 85% of nighttime conversation among San foragers is dedicated to the recounting of stories and myths attests to the prominence of this activity in modern and—by implication--ancestral hunter-gatherer life. Unfortunately, behavior doesn’t fossilize, so we don’t have access to the stories told by our ancestors. However, thanks to texts collected by early anthropologists and extant oral traditions kept alive by dedicated tribal elders, we have a good sense of what storytelling was like in recent foraging groups. Due to contact with industrialized state societies and access to Western goods, recent forager life differs somewhat from that of our ancestors; however, their story traditions date to a time when they lived in small, nomadic or semi-nomadic bands and made their living by hunting and gathering. Thus, these traditions are the product of an existence that was very similar to that of early humans—a life without agriculture, social stratification, economic specialization, motorized transport, telecommunication, or modern medicine. For this reason, research on modern foraging peoples is seen as a valuable tool for reconstructing the hominid past. Similarly, the oral traditions of ethnographically documented foragers provide a model of storytelling in ancient environments.
Michelle Scalise Sugiyama
added a research item
Teaching is reportedly rare in hunter-gatherer societies, raising the question of whether it is a species-typical trait in humans. A problem with past studies is that they tend to conceptualize teaching in terms of Western pedagogical practices. In contrast, this study proceeds from the premise that teaching requires the ostensive manifestation of generalizable knowledge: the teacher must signal intent to share information, indicate the intended recipient, and transmit knowledge that is applicable beyond the present context. Certain features of human communication appear to be ostensive in function (e.g., eye contact, pointing, contingency, prosodic variation), and collectively serve as “natural pedagogy.” Tellingly, oral storytelling in forager societies typically employs these and other ostensive behaviors, and is widely reported to be an important source of generalizable ecological and social knowledge. Despite this, oral storytelling has been conspicuously overlooked in studies of teaching in preliterate societies. Accordingly, this study presents evidence that oral storytelling involves the use of ostension and the transmission of generic knowledge, thereby meeting the criteria of pedagogy.
Michelle Scalise Sugiyama
added a research item
Oral cultures are characterized by two kinds of remembered past, the recent past and the distant past, the latter being the age of creation when the world was populated by supernatural beings, and humans as we know them today did not exist). The distant past is “so remote that its realities are not those of today, and are not to be believed or judged in the ordinary terms of the present” (de Laguna 1995:76). For example, a Yãnomamö narrator observes that “in primeval times all the honeys were easily accessible and would call out their names,” making them easy to find (Wilbert & Simoneau 1990:204). The essence of the Distant Time concept is that, deep in the past, the world was different than it is today and events occurred that are no longer possible. The San, for example, tell stories about the Early Race, a people who lived long ago when the physical laws of the present world did not apply (Lewis-Williams 2000:207). Similarly, the aboriginal people of Australia tell stories of the Dreamtime, “a time, long ago, well before the memories of the older living people, when Australia was transformed from a featureless plain by the activities of a great number of ancestral beings” who were “larger than life and gifted with superhuman magical powers” (Tonkinson 1978:15). The concept of Distant Time is present among foraging peoples across all of Murdock’s (1967) world geographical regions except the Circum-Mediterranean (Table 1)—the only region that lacks extant hunter-gatherer populations. A probable analogue in this region, however, is the “once upon a time” world of European fairy tales, Celtic legends, Norse mythology, and similar traditions: like forager literature, these stories transpire in a vague era long ago when magical things happened, and were originally transmitted orally. More at http://literary-universals.uconn.edu/2017/01/31/distant-time-a-possible-typological-literary-universal/
Michelle Scalise Sugiyama
added a project goal
The study of art customarily begins with an examination of its prehistory—the forms that it took and the contexts in which it was produced prior to recorded history. Examining a behavior in its context of origin illuminates continuities of form and use between the past and the present, which is critical to understanding motivation and function. Literary theory derived solely from written texts proceeds from an incomplete and possibly inaccurate set of assumptions about the nature of storytelling. Accordingly, this project examines the origins of storytelling by examining this behavior in a foraging context, in which stories were transmitted orally. One salient cross-cultural pattern in forager oral tradition is that “those who listened were entertained while collecting the experiences of others with no direct cost” (Wiessner 2014:14029). That is, stories appear to transmit generalizable knowledge--information that is applicable beyond the original learning context to other places, times, and situations (Csibra & Gergely 2009). An important goal of this project, then, is to test the hypothesis that forager storytelling subserves pedagogical aims.