Song as an Indigenous memory aid

Much as I am not impressed by the source – elephant hunters are not my favourite people – this description is well worth reporting. The quote was sent to me by Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Paul T. Barber, authors of the fascinating book, When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth. This book, I highly recommend.

The quote Elizabeth and Paul sent me is from a way less savoury book for my taste, but gives an incredible description of the way in which new knowledge is encoded into song by an Indigenous culture in Africa.

The source is The Wanderings of an Elephant Hunter by Walter Dalrymple Maitland Bell, first published by London, Country Life Ltd. and New York, C. Scribner’s Sons in 1923. The quote is around page 58, depending on the edition and page numbering. The story is of ivory collection – too sad to include that bit here.

It was decided to return to our base through untouched country. The news was received with shouts of joy. It is wonderful how one comes to regard the base camp as home. Whereas, on our way up, the camps had been rather gloomy—disasters having been prophesied for this expedition—now all was joy. The safari chronicler became once more his joyous self and his impromptu verse became longer and longer each night. The chronicler’s job is to render into readily chanted metre all the important doings of the safari and its members. It is a kind of diary and although not written down is almost as permanent, when committed to the tenacious memories of natives. Each night, in the hour between supper and bedtime, the chronicler gets up and blows a vibrating blast on his waterbuck horn.

This is the signal for silence. All is still. Then begins the chant of the safari’s doings, verse by verse, with chorus between. It is extraordinarily interesting but very difficult to understand. The arts of allusion and suggestion are used most cleverly. In fact, the whole thing is wonderful. Verse by verse the history rolls out on the night, no one forgetting a single word. When the well-known part is finished, bringing the narrative complete up to and including yesterday, there is a pause of expectation—the new verse is about to be launched. Out it comes without hesitation or fault, all to-day’s events compressed into four lines of clever metric precis. If humorous its completion is greeted with a terrific outburst of laughter and then it is sung by the whole lot in chorus, followed by a flare-up of indescribable noises ; drums, pipes, horns and human voices.

What a wonderful way to build up knowledge bit by bit. Maybe we should learn history that way – chronologically adding each new event in song. So many possibilities!

New discoveries about Stonehenge

I have been delighted by the numerous readers who have send emails and messages about the new discoveries about Stonehenge from the excavations in Wales. These wonderful readers have all enthusiastically claimed that the new findings fit beautifully with my theories about the purpose of Stonehenge and other monuments from the Neolithic.

The following is my response to the reports.

Image source and media report: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/feb/12/dramatic-discovery-links-stonehenge-to-its-original-site-in-wales

People need a vast knowledge system to survive, both physically and culturally. Cultures without writing have an alternative – orality – a complex of memory systems used to store a vast amount of pragmatic information. These mnemonic systems have been the focus of my academic research for well over a decade.

The new discoveries for Stonehenge describe a perfect system for replicating landscape sites when settling in the transition from a predominantly hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one with a base in agriculture. Key to such systems is the essential need for mnemonic structures such as the stone or timber ‘circles’. This is why they are found all over the world in this transition phase.

There are two possibilities which logically led to the transfer of the bluestone circle from the Preseli Hills in Wales to Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. At this moment, I don’t think the archaeology is sufficient to differentiate between them.

Firstly, an entire tribe moving from Wales to the Salisbury Plain took their encyclopaedia with them. This would require the circle to be erected in the same order as in Wales and oriented in the same direction. In effect, these people were taking their database of knowledge with them, the structure in the stones, and the data in their memories.

Secondly, a different tribe conquering those in Wales might identify just how effective this memory technique is and steal only the technology. Essentially, they stole the database structure and filled it with their own data. The bluestones are particularly suited to a mnemonic purpose due to the blotches and blobs in their material makeup.

For those not familiar with my work, the analysis of indigenous cultures from all over the world showing how they use these mnemonic technologies can be found in my LaTrobe University PhD thesis, published by Cambridge University Press as Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies (2015). An expansion of the archaeological sites for a general audience, but without as much technical detail, can be found in The Memory Code (2016). It is almost impossible to can see just how effective these methods are until you have tried them yourself. I get emails daily from readers astounded by their effectiveness. The techniques are detailed in Memory Craft (2019). In order to understand how the mnemonic technologies work from Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives, you are best to read my most recent book, Songlines: the power and promise (2020). It is co-authored by Dr Margo Neale, Head of the Centre for Indigenous Knowledges and Senior Indigenous Curator & Advisor to the Director at the National Museum of Australia.

A full bibliography can be found on my website.

The archaeological team reporting on the new Stonehenge find, led by Professor Mike Parker Pearson, are outstanding archaeologists. I have been following Parker Pearson’s teams thorough archaeological reports for years now. Without their rigorous detail, I could not have developed my ideas. However, I do find the constant emphasis on death to be limiting thinking about the way such a monument would function in an oral culture.

There is no doubt that considerations of death would have been part of the knowledge system, but indigenous cultures tend to utilise integrated knowledge systems in which all facets of knowledge are interwoven in song, dance and narrative – and physical spaces. Physical mnemonic technologies used in every oral culture I have explored include the the entire landscape, localised monuments and portable mnemonic devices. There is good reason to assume that the oral culture at Stonehenge, a mere 5,000 years ago, would have done the same.

In Australia, we are so fortunate to be able to learn from a continuous culture dating back over 60,000 years. We have ample evidence from our Aboriginal cultures of robust knowledge of landscape and skyscape events dating back 17,000 years. (See Patrick Nunn’s amazing book, The Edge of Memory). That is how powerful these methods can be and why they have developed in so many disparate cultures.

There are so many signs that Stonehenge served as a memory palace that is not a simplistic claim. There are ten criteria that I look for before I even suggest that a monument is primarily a knowledge space.

This suite of criteria is replicated at Stonehenge. There is far too much to explain here – that’s why it took a thesis and four books to thoroughly cover the topic!

For example, the essential presence of portable devices is represented at Stonehenge by Grooved ware pottery and the Stonehenge chalk plaques.

Above: A Grooved ware pot I was shown by Dr Ros Cleal at Avebury. (Photo: Damian Kelly). Those familiar with my work will notice the similarity in the pattern to the back of the lukasa of the Luba people which we know was used a mnemonic device because they explained how they use both the back and front of the lukasa. Australian Aboriginal shields also show the same patterning. There can be no link between Neolithic Brits and these contemporary cultures other than they share the same neurological structures used for memory. And that is the key to it all!

The Stonehenge chalk plaques are similar to the one I was shown at Salisbury Museum by Director, Adrian Green. (Photo: copyright Salisbury Museum. Reproduced with permission.) They would have worked a treat as a mnemonic device, recognisable as such by those familiar with mnemonic devices from oral cultures.

Let’s return to the constant reference to death. It is interesting to note that the Guardian report linked above included this statement:

The remains of at least 10 of 25 individuals, whose brittle charred bones were buried at the monument, showed that they did not spend their lives on the Wessex chalk downland, but came from more than 100 miles away.

The first stage of the monument was the bluestone circle talked about in the media reports. There were no big sarsens in the centre. They came 500 years later. Does the evidence of 10 to 25 individuals over 500 years seem enough to suggest that it was primarily a cremation burial site, primarily about death?

Quoting: https://www.walesonline.co.uk/lifestyle/tv/stonehenge-stood-400-years-wales-19822260:

It was known that Stonehenge was used as an early cremation cemetery, but not who was buried there. … It will show how Stonehenge, believed to be a tribute to the dead, is actually a second-hand monument, brought by neolithic people migrating east into England from Wales.

Why is it believed to be a tribute to the dead? Surely, the vast amount of information needed to maintain life would be just as significant, if not a great deal more so. Granted, that knowledge is often integrated in teachings from the ancestors. In all oral cultures, the concept of ‘ancestors’ is far more complex than just relating to a memorial to the dead.

If we are to draw parallels from monuments and memory systems when considering Stonehenge, it is essential that we only consider evidence which dates from times when there has been little or no contact with writing. As soon as a literate culture intervenes, very quickly the power associated with knowledge and memory diminishes and the indicators are lost. We cannot transfer beliefs or customs from one culture to another, but we can transfer generalisations from multiple cultures about how humans maintain critical knowledge when they are dependent on memory.

The time has come to acknowledge that the people who built Stonehenge, and all the other incredible Neolithic monuments around the world, were not ‘primitive’ people on the journey to ‘civilisation’, but complex, intelligent, knowledgeable people with the same intellectual capacity as contemporary humans – embracing science (my focus), philosophy, ethics and so much more. Working with Aboriginal cultures, Australian archaeologists include such understanding in their interpretations every day. The rest of the world needs to follow suit.

Songlines: the power and the promise – launched

A while has passed since Songlines: the power and promise was launched in November 2020 – but life has been too busy to blog. With a break in the covid border closures, we went to Canberra to the National Museum of Australia for the big party.

My amazing Aboriginal co-author, Margo Neale, is Head of the Centre for Indigenous Knowledges and Senior Indigenous Curator & Advisor to the Director. Margo is responsible for the extraordinarily successful exhibition, Songlines: tracking the seven sisters, which is now in Perth and then to tour the world for years.

Songlines was shortlisted in the non-fiction section of the Victorian Premiers Literary Awards. The reviews have been terrific. Here are some photos from the launch. First – the invite:

Arriving was a wonderful moment – Songlines was launching at last.

We then went on stage, here with chair, Alison Page (Indigenous author and filmmaker), co-author Margo Neale and Bill Gammage (author of The Biggest Estate on Earth). Photo: George Serras, National Museum of Australia:

We really enjoyed the audience participation! Photo:  George Serras, National Museum of Australia.

With Alison Page, Bill Gammage and co-author, Margo Neale. Photo: Damian Kelly:

I love seeing piles of books for sale! I didn’t have to do the selling.] Photo: Damian Kelly.

Nothing is more enjoyable than signing books – lots of books! Photo: Damian Kelly:

Songlines is launched and all feedback is fantastic – from the publisher and, more important, readers.