Memory in prehistory

What does Stonehenge have to do with memory research? A great deal!

At Stonehenge with Damian, husband, archaeologist and IT specialist.
At Stonehenge with Damian, husband, archaeologist and IT specialist.

My doctoral research at LaTrobe University looked at the way non-literate cultures stored vast amounts of information on the natural sciences and other practical knowledge. The research is published by Cambridge University Press as Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: orality, memory and the transmission of culture.

The research has now been extended and published for the mainstream reader. Titled The Memory Code, it was published in Australia in July 2016 by Allen & Unwin, and early in 2017 by Pegasus Books in the US and Atlantic Books in the UK. It is also available as an audio book through Audible.

I am continuing my research into archaeological interpretation which takes into account the way knowledge systems work when analysing monumental structures, such as Stonehenge and all the Neolithic monuments and stone circles, the moai of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), monuments across the Americas, Africa and the Pacific. Other researchers are taking my work further back into the Paleolithic, especially in interpreting cave art, something I am keen to explore further.

In a very exciting collaboration, I am working with Dr Andrea Alveshere from Western Illinois University on a really exciting project looking at a particular gene mutation which many millennia ago, the theory goes, differentiated us from the chimpanzees and all other primates enabling humans to develop art, music, spatial skills and attention span – all requirements for the oral knowledge systems I write so much about. These are the skills which make us human learners. It is complicated to explain. Andrea will be presenting the ideas at a conference in the US in March and the feedback to that will give us a good idea of where we are heading with this. Again, I’ll write it up soon.

Having spent a lifetime trying to get the Victorian mammals, birds and spiders right (with a very limited knowledge of the plants and other animals), I knew it was impossible to maintain such a bank of knowledge just by casually picking it up out on the daily gather and hunt. Yet this seems to be the assumption of so many who write about non-sedentary cultures.

Oral cultures are too often represented on screen and in much academic writing as some kind of quaint primitive creatures who lived in a permanent fog of superstition. If there is a female image, then it is a fertility goddess. Rituals are nebulous acts, usually interpreted as appeasing gods, even though many oral cultures don’t have gods who they worship. There is never a mention of formal knowledge systems. There is rarely, if ever, acknowledgement of human intellect, despite us all being the same species.

When I first read about oral tradition, I kept reading about history and religion. Almost nothing about science. Yet about 70% of the songs at corroborees are about animal behaviour, plant properties and other natural phenomena. The Navajo had a knowledge to three levels of classification of over 700 insects! All kept in memory – and then there are all the other animals. Plus plants, astronomy, navigation, genealogies, resource rights, marriage rules, ethics … it goes on an on. If oral cultures didn’t have formal ways of remembering so much stuff, they would not have survived. Mythology, songs, chants, dances, stories –  they all greatly enhance the ability to remember pragmatic information. There is a robust body of research on that – under the topic of primary orality – my field of expertise.

Bunjil’s Shelter, the traditional creator of the land, and his two dingoes. Grampians National Park, Victoria.

Australian Aboriginal cultures embed their navigation in singing tracks – paths which crisscross the entire landscape. Along these paths are sacred places, where ‘rituals’ are performed. Those rituals include songs which encode the entire knowledge system. The sung set of landscape locations act as a set of subheadings to the entire knowledge system. My research argues that this system is akin to the ancient Greek Method of Loci, and can be found in non-literate cultures across the world.

But what happens when a mobile society, such as our Australian language groups, starts to settle? They cannot afford to lose the knowledge system embedded in the broader landscape. The solution is to replicate it locally. They can afford to adapt history and religion, but the pragmatic information, learnt over many generations, cannot be lost or they simply won’t survive. It must then be adapted to the new environment and lifestyle, again over generations. That was the question which derailed my research and sent it of into Neolithic archaeology.

For the first few hundred years, Stonehenge consisted of  a circle of posts (or maybe the original bluestones) surrounded a ditch and bank. It was similar to a thousand other stone circles across the British Isles. It was much later that the massive sarsens arrived. A circle of stones is the perfect model to localise the annual cycle through the landscape memory locations.

Seven obsessive years later, with Stonehenge just one chapter in a much bigger story, and I am ready to go public with these ideas.

Doorways through the lower rooms at Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, a place which made a massive impression on me.

As well as the European Neolithic, I worked with archaeologists in America on mound building sites such as Watson Brake and Poverty Point, Louisiana, exploring evidence for the role of a knowledge elite.  I also worked with archaeologists  on the Ancestral Puebloan sites including the astounding Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. I fell in love with New Mexico and the Puebloan culture during my much-too-brief visit.

I am also constantly working with Australian Aboriginal cultures and learning all I can of other non-literate peoples, such as Native Americans including the hunter-gatherer Inuit and the agricultural Pueblo and Navajo, the Polynesian navigators, the African Luba and their amazing memory board, the lukasa … the list goes on and on.

I won’t be finished this research within my lifetime, so I will never be bored. What more can I ask for?


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