Did Fire Spark Storytelling?

How many of us have wondered, to paraphrase Ursula Le Guin, why we huddle about the campfire? A recent study poses an answer to this question by looking at what hunter-gatherers talk about as they sit around the fire at night. The question isn’t so much why we sit around the fire, but how the ability to control fire changed human life. Evidence indicates that our ancestors began using fire one million years ago, and were using it regularly by 400,000 BCE. Control of fire had profound effects on human survival, anatomy, and subsistence. By providing protection from predators, it reduced mortality rates and may have contributed to the evolution of a longer lifespan. By increasing the digestibility of food, it contributed to the reduction in gut volume, which in turn freed up energy that could be applied toward further brain expansion. And through the use of controlled burning, it enabled our ancestors to regulate the timing, distribution, quality, and quantity of resources. But little is known about its cultural effects. By providing warmth and light, control of fire added several waking hours to the hunter-gatherer day, raising the question of what our ancestors did with these bonus hours.

To address this question, Polly Wiessner compared 122 day and 52 nighttime conversations collected among Ju/’hoan hunter-gatherers in southern Africa. She found pronounced differences between daytime and nighttime conversation topics. Daytime discussion focused largely on gossip (34 percent), economic matters such as foraging plans, resource availability, and hunting strategies (31 percent), and joking sessions (16 percent). With the fall of darkness, however, an abrupt shift occurred, with 81 percent of talk consisting of stories. In contrast, storytelling constituted only 6 percent of daytime conversations. Although we —> Read More