Primary orality – what is it?

‘Primary orality’ is all about the way societies communicate and store information when they have no contact whatsoever with writing. If they don’t have literacy, they do have orality.

Orality is an information technology, a tool which increases the ability of humans to store and process information. It is simply extraordinary how much can be memorised using orality.

Indigenous cultures stored vast amounts of knowledge about the thousand or so animals and just as many plants in the various habitats they knew intimately. The Navajo, for example, stored a classification of over 700 insects along with habitats, behaviour, identification and metaphor for human behaviour. And that’s just insects. Then there’s navigation, geology, genealogies …  the list goes on and on.

How on earth did they memorise so much stuff? That’s what primary orality is all about.

The oral encyclopaedia was (and in some cases, still is) woven into stories, vivid imaginative sung narratives, with the specific information often associated with characters within the story. Thousands of stories integrated with spiritual beliefs were kept in mythological form, constantly repeated to ensure they were not forgotten. 

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The Bear Dance, painted by George Caitlin, 1844

Most significantly, knowledge is performed; songs, dances and mythological reenactments being far more memorable than facts stored in prose. Hence the research on primary orality always includes mythology as a mnemonic form, while acknowledging the substantial spiritual role.

My research adds material memory aids – mnemonic devices – to the topic of primary orality. It is through these physical devices, along with public and restricted performance spaces, that we can link primary orality to the archaeological record.

Singing the knowledge – Yanyuwa kujika

A wonderful collaboration between the Yanyuwa people and Monash University is online and enables us to glimpse the singing tracks of their culture. The Yanyuwa live 0n the Gulf Carpentaria in Northern Australia.

Animations of the songs can be seen at the Monash Country Lines Archive.

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As described in his 2010 book, Singing Saltwater Country John Bradley has mapped over 800 km of singing tracks in a three decade long association with the Yanyuwa people of Carpentaria.  The sung pathways through Country are referred to by the Yanyuwa as kujika and described as a ‘Yanyuwa way of knowing’ and as the ‘key to rich, complex and intricately related knowledge systems’. For one kujika, Bradley recorded over 230 verses, with knowledge stored in layer upon layer, the more complex knowledge gained with initiation into higher levels. Every detail of the landscape is described and stored in the sung narratives. Fixed in place by the very landscape they describe, the kujika act as the link connecting all songs in a sequence.

This is the method of loci in its most expansive form. Every aspect of the knowledge is encoded in these songs. This is one of the few glimpses of primary orality available in the world today, when this method of knowing almost certainly served every human community for tens of thousands of years.

The complexity of Australian Aboriginal knowledge has been hugely underrepresented until recently. We need to ensure it is understood before it is lost forever.

Bradley wrote about the experience of learning an Australian Yanyuwa kujika:

So much knowledge was being presented to me, at many levels and intricately interrelated. I was struggling to find words for much of the material as it was deeply encoded and dependent on other knowledge.

…I was amazed by the detail of this kujika, especially of the different species of sea turtles, their life cycle and habitats; it was a biology lesson in sung form.

The first stage of the Tigershark Dreaming  and then the second represent just a tiny part of the Manankurra kujika. Part One is linked to the image above, with part 2 below. Further songs are available at the Monash Country Lines Archive.

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Although there is clearly a spiritual dimension to the kujika, it is so beautifully clear that these songs give an intensie knowledge of the geography for navigation and identification and behavioural details of the animals in each microenvironment. The techniques of treating the cycad seeds to take them from deadly to edible are also mentioned. These are a rational people with great depth of knowledge.

It is the singing tracks and the depth of pragmatic knowledge which is the basis of all I write about in Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

 

Adding the Dowitcher – a comparison of memory aids

A small wading bird landed in a lake and started a twitch unlike any before in Australia. Social media went into overdrive, as bird watchers scrambled to travel for hours in the hope of a glimpse of the one long-billed dowitcher among the sharp-tailed sandpipers at Lake Tutchewop, between Swan Hill and Kerang in northern Victoria.

"Long-billed Dowitcher"
The long-billed dowitcher and sharp tailed sandpipers. Photograph with permission of Paul Dodd. Lots more stunning photographs on his website: http://paul.angrybluecat.com/Trips-and-Locations/2014/Lake-Tutchewop-Nov-2014/

Why all the excitement? This is the first record ever of a long-billed dowitcher in Australia. A new tick, a lifer, for every twitcher who managed to see it. They turned up in droves.

Readers of this blog will know that one of the memory challenges I have undertaken is to memorise the 407 birds in Victoria using a memory board. The list in my head is in taxonomic order with family names in Latin. So what happens when a new bird inserts itself in the middle of one of my existing families?

If I’d used one of the standard mnemonic methods, such as creating a rhyme for all the birds, I would have real trouble adding in a newcomer. What would happen if they found a new king between Richard I and John and needed to add him into the famous mnemonic for the monarchs of England:

Willie, Willie, Harry, Stee,
Harry, Dick, John, Harry three;
One, two, three Neds, Richard two;
Harrys four, five, six… then who? …

More complex memory methods, such as using an acronym or a linked sequence of items (the Link Method)  would also let me down here. It is very difficult to add in a new comer into the chain.  By using the complex of indigenous methods as I do, adding the dowitcher was a breeze.

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My memory board – a perfect size to hold in one hand.

I describe the way I memorise the birds in the post Memorising Birds. Each bead on the memory board (based on the African lukasa) represents a family. I traverse the beads in a set order. I can sing the 82 family names: Dromaiidae, Anatidae, Megapodiidae, Phasianidae, Podicipedidae … 82 of them. As I sing them, I can see the memory board in my mind, I know it so well. Mythological stories associated with each bead tell me how many species there are in the family. If there are more than 4, I use a journey, the method of loci, to memorise all the members of the family, again in taxonomic order. I had difficulty believing this would work when I first read about the lukasa. I now know that it is amazingly effective.

I had to add a new bird, the dowitcher. It is Scolopacidae, along with the 25 sandpipers, stints, godwits and the like in the family. The house along my sandpiper songline with the godwits and sharp-tailed sandpiper (the birds most like the dowitcher) has two small palms in front which I have linked to the two godwits. I needed something new, and soon noticed a third small palm, mostly hidden by other bushes. That palm was, within a minute, linked to the dowitcher. Hear the word ‘dowitcher’ now and my brain instantly sees that palm which allows me to locate the bird in the taxonomy. Into the ‘mythology’ I have already created around that location, I encode everything I learn about the dowitcher.

Using a range of mnemonic technologies system reflects the way non-literate cultures encode such a vast store of information about animals, plants, laws, navigation, astronomy, timekeeping and all the other practical knowledge I talk about in Indigenous mnemonics. It seems as if it would be confusing, but it isn’t. It seems as if it is more work than just memorising by constant repetition, but it is far far easier and far more robust.

I love this stuff!

Stone circles in Jordan – are they memory spaces?

Thank you to all the people who have pointed me to this news story on LiveScience and asked my opinion about whether they are memory spaces in the way I believe the British circles to be. [click on the image for the full story]

jordan-circles

Assessing stone circles and other ancient monuments as memory spaces must be made with care. It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that all ancient structures which aren’t clearly domestic or defensive served the needs of a knowledge elite. But the Jordanian circles are not like those built in the British Neolithic which I have analysed so thoroughly and am writing about in my books. The Jordanian circles are continuous walls, a few feet high, not a series discrete stones. They had no openings, but people could have just stepped over the wall.

There are eleven ancient “Big Circles” around 400 meters in diameter and many smaller ones across the Middle East.  Analysis suggests the circles date to over 2,000 years ago, possibly much longer. Without any reasonably accurate dating, the link to other aspects of the archaeology is speculative, so analysis becomes difficult.

Professor David Kennedy, from the University of Western Australia, is quoted as saying that the ‘purpose of the Big Circles is a mystery. It seems unlikely that they were originally used as corrals, as the walls were no more than a few feet high, the circles contain no structures that would have helped maintain an animal herd and there’s no need for animal corrals to have such a precise shape.’

However, the Big Circle pictured ‘was positioned in such a way that it could give someone standing inside it a “panoramic” view of a basin that would have held crops and settlements’ which ‘may have played an important part in the location of the enclosure’. This degree of reference to the landscape is a useful indicator that it may be a knowledge site.

Another valuable piece of information is that ‘the creations were part of a landscape rich in stone structures’ [which] … ‘come in a variety of shapes, including “Wheels” (circular structures with spokes radiating out); Kites (stone structures that forced animals to run into a kill zone); Pendants (lines of stone cairns that run from burials); and walls (mysterious structures that meander across the landscape for more than a mile — or up to several thousand meters — and have no apparent practical use)’.

I will ignore the Kites, because they have an apparent utilitarian purpose. Without dating showing the Pendants are contemporary with the circles, nor the nature of the burials, I can’t use them at this stage. The walls, being labour intensive structures with ‘no apparent practical use’ are right up the alley my theory likes to trot.

The article also links to other fascinating articles. It refers to the Nasca lines, which will be covered in my next book, Ancient Memory Spaces. These I already know have the whole suite of features I look for in a memory site. The Jordanian stone circles article above also links to another LiveScience article on ‘medicine wheels’ in Jordan:

middle-east-nasca-wheels

Tantalising? Oh yes!

So to those wonderful folk who are so interested in my ideas – I only wish I could answer your questions about whether the Jordanian stone circles might fit the pattern for knowledge centres. After a quick check, I fear there is far too little for me available in the literature on these sites to assess. I need to know whether there are signs of public and restricted sites, whether there were individual burials dating from the time the circles were built, what the artefacts found were and whether any match the criteria for portable memory devices. And quote a bit more. But they are certainly on my list to follow up in much more detail!

Thank you for the pointer.

Uluru as a set of memory locations

I’ve talked about the method of loci – a set of locations in the landscape used as memory aids – the most effective memory aid known. I believe that the singing tracks of the Australian cultures, the sacred trails of the Native Americans and sacred paths found in cultures around the world served the needs of memory in exactly the same way.

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Uluru, Central Australia. Photo: Ian Rowland.

The massive natural Central Australian monolith, Uluru, is easily visualised as mythological landscape with a path encircling the entire rock. The pathway around Uluru is nearly nine kilometres long. The many crevices and indentations around the base are each linked with stories. As I detail in my research and forthcoming books, the songs and stories of non-literate cultures are the means by which a vast store of information is retained, much of which is knowledge of plant and animal classifications and characteristics, navigation, weather, tides, a calendar, a pharmacopoeia, rules and ethics, genealogies all integrated with history and religion.

Australian anthropologist, Charles Mountford, described how almost every feature on the surface of Uluru (at that time referred to as Ayers Rock), is named, acting as a mnemonic for mythological story.

uluru-mountford-800

It is so easy to imagine walking the rock, each crevice and point reminding you of a story and the encoded knowledge. Over years of learning, the amount of knowledge encoded in this sequence of locations would become vast.

The Anangu traditional owners describe Uluru as part of their knowledge system, Tjukurpa, which they explain has many deep, complex meanings including the law for caring for each other and their Country, the relationships between people, plants, animals and the physical features of the land, the past, the present and the future.

It is not necessary for the Anangu knowledge specialists to be walking the rock to recall the stories. The sequence of sites is so well-known after years of learning that they can travel and part of the perimeter in their memories whenever they want. This is the art of memory exactly as described by the ancient Greeks.

 

 

Medieval memories – illuminated manuscripts

smithfield-decretals

I have always found the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages to be some of the most beautiful artistic creations of all. It was only through the research on memory spaces that I discovered that some scholars consider their design to be intricately interwoven with the need to memorise the content. The manuscript pages were designed as miniature memory spaces.

I spent an inordinate amount of time staring at the glorious reproductions in books on illuminated manuscripts.

In the Middle Ages, the memory arts changed purpose from the oratory of classical times to become the domain of the monks wishing to memorise great slabs of religious tracts. Monks were expected to memorise, at a minimum, all 150 psalms, a task which took somewhere between six months and three years.

The heavily illustrated handwritten manuscripts were seen as a prompt for medieval memory when books were extremely rare and horrendously expensive. The words were enmeshed in images which match the classical recommendations for making information far more memorable: grotesque and violent acts along with fanciful beasts, strange figures, gross ugliness and extraordinary beauty. It was common to have each chapter start with a coloured initial, alternating between red and blue, with repeated letters each having their own design, such as in the Smithfield Decretal shown above.

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Around 331 A.D., the Roman historian, Eusebius of Caesare, created lists of chapter numbers indicating areas of agreement and of difference between the Gospel accounts in  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These chapter numbers were typically presented as elaborately decorated tables, designed to be memorised. The lists of numbers were written between illustrations of columns with arches above, replicating the classical Greek advice to use intercolumnar spaces as locations for memory images. The vertical spaces were then divided into small rectangular spaces each holding no more than five items, the maximum number suggested for retaining in memory for a single location.

A huge range of memory devices were recommended in the many treatises written during the Middle Ages for monks, and later for a whole range of students. Alphabets, the zodiac, bestiaries … so many different sequences were used for miniature memory locations, often illustrated in the elaborate medieval style. Much of the art decorating churches were also aimed to aid memory. More of that in future posts!

References:

Carruthers, Mary, The book of memory: a study of memory in mediaeval culture (2008), second edition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Carruthers, M & Ziolkowski, JM (eds), The medieval craft of memory: an anthology of texts and pictures (2004), University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

de Hamel, Christopher, A history of illuminated manuscripts (1994), Phaidon, Oxford.

Yates, Frances, The art of memory (1966), Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.

 

Art: from orality to literacy

Art has a vastly different purpose in non-literate cultures than it does in literate ones.

Art in oral cultures is primarily a memory aid to the knowledge system while art in literate cultures is primarily aesthetic. A rash statement? I hope it’s one which generates debate.

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 Australian Aboriginal art, which may have been traditional or may have been produced for the Western market.

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Spider by Linda McRae, Possum by Ron King-Smith.

Too often I read that non-representational art in the archaeological context must have been for religious rituals, and interpretation is left at that. If the ‘primitive’ art is recognisable as an animal or scene, it is often assumed to be simply a repsresentation.

If the art is abstract, it is assumed to be due to some nebulous ritual. Except when interpreted by archaeologists who are very familiar with an indigenous culture, motifs are rarely, if ever, described in terms of the complex knowledge systems known from non-literate cultures such as the Australian Aboriginal and American Pueblo peoples.

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Spiral petroglyph, Petroglyph National Monument, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA.

There are a wide range of resources which document the way non-literate cultures use abstract motifs as memory aids to the knowledge system. Often, the same abstract sign can signify a range of meanings depending on the context, ceremony and person reading the signs. It is essential that interpretation of traditional art of non-literate cultures, historic or archaeological, be considered in terms of the way in which art aids the way a vast corpus of knowledge is memorised.

Two books, among many, have been hugely influential in my thinking on this topic.

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Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge. Howard Morphy is a leading writer about the Yongu of northwest Arnhem Land, one of the Aboriginal cultures which has retained a great deal of their traditional knowledge and been willing to convey it to anthropologists such as Morphy. Among many other aspects, Morphy explains how a single set of abstract images can lead to a multiplicity of interpretations by the Elders depending on the situation.

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Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History covers the extraordinarily beautiful art of the African Luba people. It is claimed that their success as a culture in terms of longevity and range, was due to their memory devices, including the memory board known as a lukasa. Mary Nooter Roberts and Allen F. Roberts have edited this book on the Luba and their memory systems as well as written extensively on the topic themselves. Although the Roberts focus on the historical knowledge, they also refer to knowledge in a variety of genres including the pragmatic information which is my particular interest.

This topic fascinates me. I will be coming back to it many times in the future!