Since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in , scientists have repeatedly proposed that the laws of biological evolution apply not just to bird and beast but also to creatures of the mind. Moreover, they were not just metaphorically alive but technically living things. As early as , folklorists started comparing the evolution of stories and organisms, envisioning Linnaean taxonomies and evolutionary trees, or phylogenies, for myths and tales.
Genetics revolutionized evolutionary biology and taxonomy. They can also compare their DNA, which maintains a record of familial mergers and divisions over great spans of time.
Eclipse Superstitions Are a Thing of the Past, and the Present
As different species evolve, they accumulate genetic mutations at a more or less steady rate. In general, the more similar the genomes of two species—the more that certain key sequences of A s, T s, C s, and G s match—the more recently they split from a common ancestor. Then he fed the data into computer programs that use statistics to build phylogenetic trees. On a separate limb of the tree, the story of the goats descended from an Aesopian tale dated to ad. Scholars have long pondered the true origins of such stories, many of which only achieved widespread literary fame between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, following publications by folklorists such as Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm.
Were they really sourced from European peasants, as claimed? And if they were genuine folktales passed down through the generations, just how old were they? This time the results were even more revealing. Tehrani and Silva discovered that some had existed for far longer than previously known. Multiple iterations—which vary greatly but typically involve a blacksmith outwitting a demon—have appeared throughout history across Europe and Asia, from India to Scandinavia, and occasionally in Africa and North America as well.
I have young children myself, and I read them bedtime stories, just as parents have done for hundreds of generations. The story of storytelling began so long ago that its opening lines have dissolved into the mists of deep time. The best we can do is loosely piece together a first chapter. We know that by 1. At least one hundred thousand years ago, and possibly much earlier, humans were drawing, painting, making jewelry, and ceremonially burying the dead. And by forty thousand years ago, humans were creating the type of complex, imaginative, and densely populated murals found on the chalky canvases of ancient caves: art that reveals creatures no longer content to simply experience the world but who felt compelled to record and re-imagine it.
Over the past few hundred thousand years, the human character gradually changed. We became consummate storytellers.
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T he name Polyphemus comes from the Greek poly, meaning many, and pheme, meaning speech, reputation, or fame. Polyphemus, then, means one much spoken of, someone of great repute. Each of these ten stories pitted a hero against a malevolent one-eyed giant.
Grimm believed they all branched off from a single ur-mythos. Recent research suggests that Grimm was right. Later, the myth traveled through Africa and then across Europe, in parallel with the spread of livestock farming, morphing and speciating all the while. In a way, the many iterations and adaptations of the tale of Polyphemus are their own woolly disguise, so thickly layered on such an ancient story that we can only glimpse its original form.
One of the oldest and most prevalent motifs in storytelling—and a testament to the creative power of stories themselves—is the transformation of the inanimate into the living, often at the hands of a talented artist. In Greek mythology, Hephaestus, the god of crafts, creates a giant bronze automaton to protect Europa, the mother of King Minos of Crete. In Jewish folklore, golems are anthropomorphic figures animated by magic, often depicted as large troll-like creatures made from clay or mud.
In a tale from China, a magician gives a young peasant boy an enchanted paintbrush that brings whatever he paints to life. And the Italian writer Carlo Collodi created the character of Pinocchio, a wooden puppet that dreams of being a real boy. Though he knew it was madness, Pygmalion became increasingly infatuated with his creation and prayed for a living likeness. When he returned home from the feast of Venus and kissed the statue, she came to life.
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They married and had a son, the namesake of the city of Paphos. In a South African variant, for example, a tribal leader tries to abduct a recently animated woman from the sculptor who made her. The sculptor throws the woman to the ground and she turns back into wood. These nascent Pygmalion myths then spread to other parts of Africa and the Levant with migrating livestock herders.
Any contemporary interpretation of a story that potentially existed long before recorded history is necessarily speculative. Although the phylogenetic analysis of folktales and myths may benefit from the latest statistical techniques and software, it remains a new and uncertain science that many folklorists regard with a mix of intrigue and skepticism. And the vast majority of ancient tales surely perished with their tellers. If certain beloved stories really have endured for many thousands of years, however, they tell us something important about the origin and nature of narrative itself.
Ulysses escapes under the ram detail , from a black-figured convex lekythos, c. E very month or so, indigenous hunter-gatherers in the Philippines known as the Agta pick up their banana-leaf lean-tos and move to a different region of Northern Sierra Madre National Park. They fish, hunt, and forage along the coast and in the jungle. They sometimes trade for rice with nearby agricultural villages, but they are mostly self-sufficient—one of the few such groups still in existence. Although living hunter-gatherers are of course not replicas of our Paleolithic ancestors, their cultures—combined with archaeological evidence—help compose a portrait of how humans likely lived before the widespread adoption of agriculture and densely populated settlements.
In one story, the moon proves that it is as strong as the sun and the two agree to share dominion of the sky. In another, a winged ant snubs her flightless peers and tries to befriend birds and butterflies instead; after those creatures reject her, she returns to her colony, accepts her true identity, and becomes a queen.
Similar themes run through the myths and folktales of hunter-gatherer societies around the world. In , Migliano and her colleague Daniel Smith, along with several other researchers, began surveying the Agta about the characteristics they valued most in their peers.
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To their surprise, storytelling topped the list—it was even more prized than hunting skills and medicinal knowledge. When they asked nearly three hundred Agta which of their peers they would most like to live with, skilled storytellers were two times more likely to be selected than those without such talents, regardless of age, sex, and prior friendship. And when they asked the Agta to play resource allocation games, in which they could keep bags of rice or donate them to others, people from camps with talented storytellers were more generous, giving away more rice, and esteemed storytellers were themselves more likely to receive gifts.
Most profoundly, Agta with a reputation as good storytellers were more reproductively successful: they had 0. They are populated by predators real and imaginary. They are replete with physical and interpersonal threats—in particular deceit. They confront characters with at least one crisis and force them to either resolve it or meet a terrible fate. Even the folktales of the Agta, which emphasize harmony, only do so through a sharp contrast with discord. Stories need conflict, we say. Because conflict makes for a good story. Not only are ancient myths and folktales almost universally concerned with danger and death; they are blatantly didactic.
If we remove their layers of symbolism and subtext—which have been interpreted and reinterpreted for millennia—and focus on their narrative skeletons, we find that they are studded with practical and moral insights: people are not always what they seem; the mind is as much a weapon as the body; sometimes humility is the best path to victory.
The earliest stories were, for all their fantasy, far more pragmatic. Their villains were often thinly veiled analogies for real-world threats, and their conclusions offered useful lessons. They were simulations that allowed our ancestors to develop crucial mental and social skills and to practice overcoming conflict without being in actual danger. Though we may never definitively know what confluence of biological and cultural pressures hatched the first stories—though narrative has far exceeded its preliminary role in human evolution—it seems that our predecessors relied on stories to teach each other how to survive.
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