Orality – why it is so important for prehistoric archaeologists

Primary orality is what you have when you don’t have literacy.

It is often commented that prehistoric cultures didn’t leave a written record. What is almost never mentioned is that cultures which had no contact with writing did have an alternative. They had orality. Most aspects of orality have been literally overwritten by writing, but they do leave a trace in the archaeological record.

Oral cultures employ a wide range of techniques to retain a vast amount of information in memory because they don’t write it down. The research on primary orality talks about the way song, stories, dance and mythology encode vast stores of information in memorable forms.

What is important for archaeologists is that primary oral cultures also used material devices to aid memory: from the landscape and art through an incredible range of enigmatic portable objects. It is these material signs which can be detected in the archaeological record.

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Lukasa from the Brooklyn Museum

For example, the African Luba use a memory board known as a lukasa, among many mnemonic devices. It is used in a very similar way to the Australian churinga/tjuringa. These devices are restricted to knowledgeable elders. Their prehistoric equivalent should be found in ceremonial sites, but almost never in domestic settings.

Songs, dances, stories and mythological representations are not simply for entertainment nor are they purely superstitious. They are an essential way of recording masses of pragmatic information. Performance spaces should exhibit a public/restricted dichotomy as is found in all indigenous cultures.

It is too often assumed that knowledge is simply handed on through stories told around the campfire or casually taught, parent to child, out on the daily gather and hunt. In years of research, I have never found a single culture which operated that way. All cultures teach in formal settings – oral and literate.

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To understand the nature of orality, I started with some of the oldest continuous cultures on the planet, the 300 or so Australian Aboriginal language groups.

The Yolngu of Arnhem Land share their knowledge at the annual Garma Festival. They offer some of the best understanding of orality because they have explained it on their terms.

Indigenous survival depends on masses of practical knowledge. There are many commonalities about the memory methods used by oral cultures from the mobile Australian to the more sedentary Native American, African and Pacific cultures.

It is those commonalities which can offer another tool for archaeologists interpreting ancient ceremonial sites: orality.

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!

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.

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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.

 

 

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!

 

Socrates on the risks of writing

socrates-death-detail  Every new invention has its critics.

Socrates warned against the spread of writing and the subsequent loss of the ability to memorise.

Plato’s Phaedrus, written in about 370 BC, takes the form of a dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus, an Athenian aristocrat.

Socrates quoted the God Thamus, on the topic of writing:

For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practise their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them.

Thamus went on to say:

You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.

Socrates lived at the time when writing was taking hold in ancient Greece. Ironically, we only know what he believed because his pupil, Plato, wrote it down.

We now trust everything to our electronic devices. The entire world of information is at our fingertips, so why bother remembering anything when you can just look it up? Are we paying for the information age with wisdom?

Obviously, as an author, I am totally in favour of writing, of literacy. But I also think that we have lost some of the great aspects of orality, the way knowledge is memorised by non-literate people, including indigenous cultures and the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers.

We can no longer hold even a fraction of all that is known in memory – we need books and computers to do that. We need literacy. However, I believe that if we taught the memory arts in school, that students would have a stronger framework on which to build their book learning in every subject.

I want to see orality skills taught alongside literacy.