The art of telling stories has been around since the days when humans first began forming cohesive societies. These days, a good storyteller can be the life of the party, or making a living through their speeches or writing. But new research has found that in hunter-gatherer societies, storytellers were essential to promoting cooperative and egalitarian values before religion was ever a factor.
The research was led by Daniel Smith, Andrea Migliano, and Lucio Vinicius from University College London’s Department of Anthropology. The group based their findings on their study of the Agta, which was a hunter-gatherer group descended from the first colonizers of the Philippines over 35,000 years ago.
They asked three group elders to tell them stories that they would have normally told their children and each other. This resulted in four stories narrated over three nights. In listening to these stories, the researchers found that the stories about humanized natural entities like animals or celestial bodies promoted social and cooperative norms to coordinate group behavior.
Out of a sample of 89 stories from seven different hunter-gatherer societies, the study found that 70% of the stories concerned reinforcing and regulating social behavior.
“These stories appear to co-ordinate group behavior and facilitate co-operation by providing individuals with social information about the norms, rules and expectations in a given society,” explains Smith. In light of this, it’s not surprising that Agta groups with a greater proportion of skilled storytellers were found to have increased levels of cooperation.
Storytellers were found to be more popular than even the best foragers. They had greater reproductive success and were more likely to be cooperated with by other members of their group. Skilled storytellers had an average of 0.53 more children than those who were not skilled.
The authors believe that storytelling was pivotal to organizing necessary social behavior and promoting cooperation.
“Hunter-gatherer religions do not have moralizing gods and yet they are highly cooperative towards the whole community,” says Migliano. “Thus, storytelling in hunter-gatherers was a precursor to more elaborate forms of narrative fiction such as moralizing high-gods, common in post-agricultural populations”