Family Stories at the Birth of Humanity

Why our ancestors told stories around the evening fire.

Posted Oct 15, 2016

Think about our images of our ancient forbears, hunter-gatherers sitting around the fire at night for food and warmth.  But what did they talk about?  From our modern point of view, this was a difficult life.  People were often cold and hungry and not sure if the next hunt would be successful, if the next gathering ground would yield food, if there would be enough of anything to sustain the group.  So certainly this is what they focused on – how to find food, how to organize the hunt, how to divide up scarce resources. 

Actually, recent research in anthropology suggests that what our ancient forbears did around the fire was tell stories!  Stories are the essence of what human beings do when they gather together – they tell of their adventures and misdeeds, epic stories of others who came before and things they expect to happen in the future.  Stories cement the group and expand its’ horizons; stories instill values and create cultural history.  And this new research suggests that stories are as ancient as human beings themselves. 

In a 2014 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Polly Weissner studied an existing tribe of bushmen as a window onto our past.  During the day, they talked about economic matters, social issues, and so on, but at night, gathered around the fire, eating their evening meal, they told stories.  Moreover, the majority of these stories were about people still living in the group.  That is, they were family stories!

In some of my recent blogs, I talked about the importance of family dinner as a time for the family to sit together, talk about the day’s events, and share family stories, and how this helps build strong families and resilient children.  Our research in The Family Narratives Lab shows that children who know family stories are more confident, have higher self-esteem, have better social relationships with their peers, and better relationships with their parents.  It seems that ancient wisdom confirms our recent findings.  From the beginning, our forbears engaged in sharing stories about their individual and joint adventures, achievements and catastrophes.  Keep in mind, these were difficult living conditions – weather, sustenance, disease – life was hard!  So why tell stories? 

Maybe partly to entertain, to take everyone’s mind off difficult living conditions and provide some respite from a grueling life.  But maybe also to create strong bonds among the tribe members, to create a sense that everyone is in this together, everyone shares basic needs and concerns.  And through stories like these, all of us can also pass down lessons.  Even more so than direct teaching, stories allow us to understand how others have coped with difficult situations, solved difficult problems, or found strength in the support of others.  Stories bring us together, help us create a sense of how and why we belong together as a group and provide models for how we will face challenges together in the future.  Stories are simply the way we understand ourselves and others.

So tonight, when you sit around the dinner table with your family and talk about the exploits of your day, and share stories of your lives, remember, stories make us who we are.  Stories help us create a shared history and anticipate a shared future with our loved ones.  Stories are, in a very real sense, what make us human, and stories help create a sense of family togetherness.  As evidence from our ancient forbears suggests, to be human is to share stories, and through these stories to create a sense of who we are in the past, in the present and preparing us to cope with the future.

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