More than mem­ory

Cosmos - - Spectrum - JIM ROUN­TREE is ed­i­tor of Cos­mos Lessons.

The true pur­pose of the world’s great pre­his­toric sites were to act as vast repos­i­to­ries for cul­tural knowl­edge, ar­gues Aus­tralian oral his­tory re­searcher Lynne Kelly. JIM ROUN­TREE re­ports.

Most of us know a place where sculp­tured rocks, ma­jes­tic trees or per­haps the light give us a feel­ing the place is spe­cial. We sense some­thing mys­te­ri­ous and won­der­ful – be­yond the nor­mal­ity of ev­ery­day life.

Now, imag­ine you are young and vis­it­ing such a place. It is in the land of your peo­ple, a clan of hunter-gath­er­ers. Your par­ents tell you the story of the place. You can see the marks left as myth­i­cal an­ces­tors fought and played, act­ing out mo­men­tous, tragic events.

You will never for­get this story, and you will never for­get the place. They are locked to­gether in your mind.

But the story doesn’t stop there. The an­ces­tors roamed clan ter­ri­tory, leav­ing traces at ev­ery point. It’s easy to re­mem­ber their bizarre, dra­matic acts, which be­come in­sep­a­ra­ble from the marks they left be­hind on the land­scape. Story and land merge in a men­tal map that means you al­ways know where you are and what lies in ev­ery di­rec­tion.

Now you are older and ready to be ini­ti­ated. Back at the spe­cial place you learn there is more to the story. The an­ces­tor turned into a mil­li­pede leav­ing those marks – one for each verse of a song you must now learn; many gen­er­a­tions old, it holds vi­tal in­for­ma­tion you can’t af­ford to get wrong.

Time passes – you are an el­der. You know a thou­sand songs, chants, sto­ries and dances. They tell about the an­i­mals – their life cycles, how they feed and breed, how to hunt them and the rules for di­vid­ing the kill. You know which plants you can eat and how to pre­pare them. The songs tell you the clues, on land and in the night sky, of the pass­ing sea­sons, so you know when to move as game be­comes abun­dant or plants fruit. The songs tell you the laws of your peo­ple and the gods and spir­its you must ap­pease. They con­tain your peo­ple’s his­tory and re­la­tions with neigh­bour­ing groups.

As an el­der you have author­ity, with oth­ers, to cre­ate new sto­ries for events wor­thy of mem­ory.

With so much to re­mem­ber you have songs to list and a cer­e­mo­nial cy­cle mapped to each of the lo­ca­tions you visit, so you can be cer­tain that ev­ery story is reg­u­larly re­hearsed.

Spread through your mind and the minds of oth­ers in your group is the to­tal knowl­edge of your peo­ple. It is a repos­i­tory of in­cred­i­ble de­tail, con­tain­ing in­for­ma­tion of prac­ti­cal im­por­tance as well as the be­liefs that de­fine your un­der­stand­ing of the uni­verse and your place within it. With­out a writ­ten lan­guage, you must keep it ever alive and pass it on com­pletely and ac­cu­rately. So of course, you use the method by which it came to you, in in­ter­wo­ven branches of story and song that em­anate from the land­scape myths you learnt as a child. The whole of your coun­try serves as a gi­gan­tic mnemonic de­vice for this knowl­edge.

The trick of us­ing sto­ries tied to fea­tures in a lo­ca­tion as a mem­ory aid is no se­cret. Mod­ern speed-mem­ory competitors use the tech­nique, link­ing each card in a deck to lo­ca­tions within a fa­mil­iar place pic­tured in the mind’s eye – a so-called mem­ory palace, a mnemonic de­vice first used in an­cient Greece and Rome.

Eth­nol­o­gists have known for some time how pre­lit­er­ate so­ci­eties told sto­ries linked to their en­vi­ron­ments. We can see the method in oral cul­tures of Na­tive Amer­i­cans, Africans, Poly­ne­sians and Aus­tralian Abo­rig­ines.

Once all peo­ples must have used sys­tems of this kind. In the Western tra­di­tion, for ex­am­ple, the Iliad was re­cited from mem­ory.

In her lat­est book, The Mem­ory Code, Aus­tralian science writer and La Trobe Univer­sity oral his­tory re­searcher Lynne Kelly stresses the ef­fec­tive­ness of the method to ac­cu­rately re­mem­ber and trans­mit vast amounts of knowl­edge. This sets the ground for her main the­sis: that nu­mer­ous pre­his­toric sites around the world had a pri­mary func­tion as mem­ory aids, serv­ing as knowl­edge cen­tres for peo­ples tran­si­tion­ing from hunter­gath­erer to set­tled agri­cul­tural life­styles. Her list in­cludes henges, cairns and stand­ing stones in Western Europe, Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, Ne­olithic tem­ple com­plexes in Malta, Pue­blo “great houses” in the south­west­ern United States and the giant, geo­met­ric an­i­mals cut into the Nasca Plain in Peru.

The ba­sic idea is sim­ple. If you no longer cover all of your ter­ri­tory on a reg­u­lar ba­sis but need to re­tain knowl­edge via sto­ries linked to spe­cific lo­ca­tions, you have to trans­fer the sto­ries into ob­jects closer to hand. Take henges as an ex­am­ple: rough, dis­sim­i­lar rocks with pits, grooves and nat­u­ral mark­ings will do – the ac­tions of the an­ces­tors can be imag­ined into th­ese. So much the bet­ter if the rocks are from where the orig­i­nal story was set, thereby re­tain­ing a spir­i­tual con­nec­tion to it. Spac­ing the rocks so you en­counter them separately and in se­quence aids their use.

Small ob­jects, well suited to be mnemonic de­vices, have also been found at all of th­ese sites. Th­ese in­clude bones, pat­terned chalk plates, stone balls, pot­tery and wooden plaques. Cur­rent oral cul­tures en­code knowl­edge into ob­jects like this, so it’s fair to at­tribute the same use to the an­cient arte­facts.

In ad­di­tion, all of the sites have per­for­mance spaces – es­sen­tial to this method of knowl­edge re­ten­tion. The songs and sto­ries have to be rit­u­ally re­hearse so they are not for­got­ten, and so the young can learn them. Larger henges were sur­rounded by seg­mented ditches. Stone­henge’s ditch had 60 elon­gated pits two to five me­tres wide. Kelly imag­ines one in use: dancers in masks, flick­er­ing flame-light, chant­ing and drums re­ver­ber­at­ing off the white chalk walls while an au­di­ence watches. Such per­for­mances would have added to the mem­o­ra­bil­ity of the sto­ries en­acted.

Com­mon to al­most all the sites are path­ways serv­ing no ap­par­ent prac­ti­cal use. Th­ese might have served pro­ces­sional chant­ing. By us­ing such tracks, story lines cov­er­ing hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres might have been con­densed into hun­dreds of me­tres. The ab­stract an­i­mal de­signs on the Nasca Plain are the prime ex­am­ple of this; in ev­ery case the out­line is a con­tin­u­ous path that could be walked, chant­ing ap­pro­pri­ately for each sec­tion.

Kelly ac­knowl­edges that spir­i­tual be­lief must have been en­twined through­out the sto­ries of th­ese peo­ples, but her fo­cus is on the prac­ti­cal.

We will have to wait and see how her claims about th­ese sites – work for which she re­cently re­ceived her PHD – stand up to on­go­ing aca­demic scru­tiny.

In the mean­time she gives weight to her ar­gu­ments with more than 30 per­sonal mem­ory projects. When she says that the Inca ar­range­ments of strings and knots known as qui­pus are ex­cel­lent mnemonic de­vices, she knows it to be so be­cause she has used one for the his­tory of art. She has all the coun­tries of the world told into ob­jects around her house and gar­den, and the Earth’s ge­o­log­i­cal his­tory in the houses, fences and let­ter­boxes on the block where she walks the dog. More than 400 lo­cal bird species are told into a small block of wood with glue­don but­tons and shells, copy­ing African lukasa still in use.

Kelly de­scribes how ef­fec­tive and easy the method is once you’ve got the hang of it, and how it in­spires her to fill gaps in her knowl­edge. She notes the strong emo­tional at­tach­ment she has to her sto­ries and songs, and how, al­though she can­not ex­plain it clearly, it con­sti­tutes for her a com­pletely dif­fer­ent way of know­ing.

So, even putting aside her the­sis about an­cient sites, Kelly’s book still of­fers plenty to con­sider. For one, we can see con­tem­po­rary oral cul­tures as less dif­fer­ent to our own. Per­spec­tives of peo­ples’ oral tra­di­tions are of­ten shot through with con­de­scen­sion. Kelly of­fers a new view­point, show­ing us peo­ple who, faced with a prob­lem, de­vel­oped an ef­fec­tive way of over­com­ing it.

There’s also food for thought when we con­sider that this way of re­mem­ber­ing pos­si­bly emerged not long af­ter the de­vel­op­ment of lan­guage it­self. So it could well be that our brains are wired in a way par­tic­u­larly suited to it. If so, why not con­tinue to use it? Imag­ine chil­dren on their first day of school be­ing taken by the teacher for a walk around the grounds, telling sto­ries.

In this age when in­for­ma­tion can be eas­ily sourced on­line, there is still a case for mem­ory. There is value in hav­ing in­for­ma­tion al­ready in our minds, where we can pon­der it, turn it over and find un­ex­pected, in­ter­est­ing new con­nec­tions. Per­haps pre­lit­er­ate so­ci­eties might of­fer us valu­able lessons.

IM­AGES 01 Eura­sia Press / Getty Im­ages 02 Martin Ber­netti / AFP / Getty Im­ages 03 Michelle Ran­som-hughes / ABC Ra­dio


Pre­his­toric an­i­mal out­lines such as this one on Peru’s Nasca Plain may have helped early peopes pass down knowl­edge. 02


Lynne Kelly has used pre­his­toric mneomonic sys­tems in more than 30 of her per­sonal mem­ory projects. 03

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