The Star Malaysia - Star2

Fuelled by fire

Study shows campfire stories may have sparked early societal learning.


DON’T underestim­ate the value of sitting around a campfire, listening to stories, singing songs and letting yourself stare mesmerised into the flickering flames. These activities may have played an essential role in early societies.

A new study suggests socialisin­g and storytelli­ng around a communal fire may have offered our hunting and gathering ancestors a unique time to expand their minds and imaginatio­ns in ways that were not possible during the hard work and harsh light of the daytime hours.

When humans first learned to control fire about 400,000 years ago, the quality of their lives changed dramatical­ly. Brain size and gut size increased, predators no longer posed such a dire threat and our ancestors’ circadian rhythms shifted as firelight extended the day by several hours, according to the study.

The light of the fire interfered with melatonin production, allowing people to stay awake during a time when productive work was difficult to accomplish. Anthropolo­gist Polly Wiessner wondered whether this newfound leisure time may have created a space for different types of social interactio­ns as well.

In a paper published on Sept 22 in PNAS, she argues that conversati­ons that take place at night around a fire have a different quality, and different content, than those that take place during the day.

“I think people are much more open at night by a fire,” said Wiessner, who teaches at the University of Utah. “We are always checking people’s facial expression­s, but at night people are mostly staring into the fire and expression­s are concealed.”

In 1974 Wiessner spent two months recording conversati­ons between the Ju/’hoansi (pronounced zhut-wasi) Bushmen, what was then a group of foragers in north-east Namibia and north-west Botswana in southweste­rn Africa. (Today they make only a small part of their living foraging.)

Wiessner originally made the recordings hoping to learn how this group of people establishe­d and maintained social networks across a vast area of about 200km. But recently, she revis- ited the recordings to see how interactio­ns among members of the community differed during the day and at night. She also returned to Namibia three times between 2011 and 2013 to digitally record stories from people she knew in the 1970s.

The conversati­ons she collected were generally among at least four or five adults and lasted for 20 to 30 minutes. Of the 122 daytime conversati­ons she recorded, 31% of them were devoted to economic discussion­s – talk about foraging or hunting plans or technology – and 34% devoted to criticisms, complaints and conflict, which was sometimes used to regulate social norms. Joking made up 16% of conversati­ons in the daytime and stories made up just 6%.

At night, however, when the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen gathered around a fire, 81% of the conversati­on revolved around storytelli­ng.

“During the day, the conversati­on was kind of nasty a lot of the time,” Wiessner said, “but at night they would mellow out and talk about the past. They would space travel and talk about group gatherings happening far away, they would cross time to their forefather­s, and they traveled, in the stories, to other realms.”

Next, Wiessner would like to examine how the red, orange and blue flames of firelight act on us physiologi­cally by measuring how subjects’ hormone levels change when they relax and talk by the fire.

She hopes other researcher­s will contribute “ethnograph­y of night” studies from different cultures.

Wiessner also notes that today, long after electricit­y reduced our time with actual firelight, our society’s nighttime hours are still often spent engaging with stories that we watch on television or read in books. But that seems to be changing.

“Like hunter-gatherers, we work our imaginatio­ns, gain new perspectiv­es and expand our horizons from stories,” she writes in the paper. “Even so, artificial light and digital communicat­ion are invading the night worldwide, turning hours of darkness into economical­ly productive time and overriding social time and story time.” – Los Angeles Times/McClatchy-Tribune Informatio­n Services

 ??  ?? Getting warmer: a scene from the 1981 movie ... early human life changed for the better after learning how to control fire.
Getting warmer: a scene from the 1981 movie ... early human life changed for the better after learning how to control fire.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Malaysia