Storytelling Promoted Egalitarian Values Before the Advent of Religion

Hunter-gatherers maintain storytelling traditions that predate organized religion, yet have a similar effect in helping to instill values among social groups.

Storytelling is a human universal that likely dates back to the origin of our species. Even now, existent hunter-gatherer groups like the Agta in the Philippines include talented orators who entertain listeners with tales passed down over multiple generations.

The majority of the stories, such as the Agta's "Sun and the Moon," promote social and cooperative norms. In this particular tale, there is a dispute between the male sun and the female moon over who will illuminate the sky. After a fight, when the moon proves to be as strong as the sun, they agree to share the duty — with one working during the day and the other during the night. 

Andrea Migliano of University College London (UCL) and her team recently spent time with the Agta in the Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park of Isabela Province, where they heard the tale, among others, firsthand.

"A magic moment was when we listened to the stories told by the elders, with all of the children around us laughing and really paying attention," Migliano told Seeker, still beaming at the recollection.

Aside from providing enjoyable entertainment, traditional storytelling often promotes cooperative and egalitarian values, Migliano and her team determined. In a paper published in the journal Nature Communication, she and her colleagues build a compelling case that storytelling helped to unify and strengthen human groups before comparable practices evolved in larger agricultural societies, such as the advent of organized religion with moralizing high-level gods.

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Cooperation and the Evolution of Hunter-Gatherer Storytellers

Migliano was inspired to conduct the study because she is part of AgtaAid, an organization that develops educational materials for indigenous peoples in the Philippines. The Agta are descended from the first colonizers in the Philippines, who lived more than 35,000 years ago. 

"Listening to the stories the Agta were telling, I realized how different they were from our own tales, and how much they seemed to be emphasizing equality," Migliano said.

When Daniel Smith, also from UCL, decided to investigate how different hunter-gatherer activities predict reproductive success, he, Migliano, and their colleagues decided to join forces to see how storytelling affected both the orators and the Agta as a whole. 

The researchers asked three Agta elders to tell them stories that they normally share with their children and each other. The request resulted in four stories narrated over three nights. The researchers found that the stories about humanized natural entities, such animals or celestial bodies, promoted social and cooperative norms to coordinate group behavior. 

"We then decided to test if camps (within the Agta) with good storytellers had increased levels of cooperation, without really expecting to find anything," Migliano said. "But the effect was still there. Camps with more storytellers were more cooperative. The stories seem to work." 

Nearly 300 members from 18 Agta camps were then asked to choose whom they would most like to live with, and storytellers were nominated nearly twice as much as less skilled speakers. In fact, talented orators were found to have, on average, 53 percent more children than others, demonstrating the reproductive benefits of being a good storyteller.

"It's definitely plausible that there is a heritable component to storytelling, but as it's also a learned behavior, any individual willing to invest the time and effort can probably learn to be a good storyteller," Smith told Seeker. 

The researchers then went beyond the Agta, to see what topics other hunter-gatherer groups address in their stories. They found that 70 percent of a sample of 89 stories taken from seven other hunter-gatherer societies concerned reinforcing and regulating social behaviors. 

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Smith explained that storytelling is a powerful way to broadcast social norms to a group and to disseminate meta-knowledge, which is knowledge about other's knowledge, in order to organize behavior. 

"This is a fundamental principle necessary for society to function," he continued. "As a simple example, it is not enough to know that you should drive on one side of the road. You also need to know that others possess the same knowledge, otherwise the system breaks down. We suggest that stories act to broadcast this meta-knowledge among all members of a community."

The researchers suspect that as ancient hunter-gatherers moved from camp to camp within loosely structured groups, storytelling provided an easy and enjoyable way for people to understand different social norms and how to adapt to new rules.

"Storytelling is an efficient way to broadcast social norms and promote large-scale cooperation," Migliano said. "If I had to guess, I would put storytelling at the origins of Homo sapiens, when more fluid groups started to appear."

The authors believe that the primary difference between stories told by hunter-gatherers and those told by members of organized religions is their complexity. Both types of stories otherwise serve similar functions. 

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As agricultural societies became more complex and less egalitarian, however, the themes of the stories began to reflect the social changes. Nevertheless, Smith said, "the coordinating function remained."

"In the case of the high-gods and religion," Migliano said, "the argument seems to be that the fear of supernatural punishment is what makes people conform, follow the rules, and cooperate. We show that supernatural punishment is not present in these hunter-gatherer stories. Quite the opposite, they feature equality rather than hierarchy. They feature cooperation and pro-sociality, and they seem to be effective in promoting cooperation."

The researchers are working to safeguard the Agta and their culture. AgtaAid has already created books in the Agta language, so that children can read the stories.

“A really emotional time for us was when AgtaAid went back (to the Philippines) with the first books and the stories reproduced in Agta,” Migliano said. “The elders could not read, but the young children read the stories back to the elders, who were really moved and happy to hear the stories they had learned as children now being told by their grandchildren."

With funding from the Leverhulme Trust, the researchers are also assisting the Agta to have the hunter-gatherers' land rights officially recognized by the Philippine government.

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Through further research, the authors hope to learn how individuals become skilled storytellers, how social contexts like warfare may change tales, and if there are any noteworthy sex and age differences between storytellers. So far, it appears that both men and women among the Agta have equal levels of storytelling skills, perhaps reflecting their more egalitarian society.

Although storytelling has clearly benefited and helped to shape human groups, there can be a dark side to this practice.

As Smith pointed out, "There is the danger that narratives can also be used for more sinister and manipulative purposes, especially if the storyteller is given free rein on the type of stories they tell."

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