The Storytelling Ape

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Pic: Rod Fleming

It’s a striking thought that civilisation evolved here on Earth only 7,000 years ago. Since then, humans have achieved many really incredible things. But even in terms of our own—mostly unwritten—history, 7,000 years is almost insignificant; it’s less than 4 % of the time Homo sapiens, the storytelling ape, has existed.

For the other 96% of our time, we knew nothing of any advanced technology. We had no metallurgy and no agriculture. Everything we had, we found in the environment round us. And our footprint was incredibly light. We left almost no trace of our passing, which of course, has made it difficult to piece together our story. Just in the last couple of decades, though, with significant advances just this year, we have finally been able to construct a timeline of the human colonisation of the world.

Current research indicates that Homo sapiens, modern humans, first appeared on the plains of Africa, 200,000 years ago or thereabouts. For the first 150,000 years or so of our history, we remained in Africa. We all had dark skin, to protect us from the sun’s UV. We were hunter-gatherers, and lived in small groups that may have been sedentary, remaining in one geographical area and exploiting it for food, or nomadic, endlessly following the herds of game.

We were talking and chattering all the time. We evolved with the power of speech. We have a hyoid bone, which allows us to stretch our vocal cords, and produce a variety of pitches of sound. Just as importantly, though, we have a dropped larynx. Behind our vocal cords is an empty space, which is what allows us to produce the modulation of speech.

These things did not evolve, and some time later we decided to make use of them; they evolved because we were already using them. We were talking. Why? Because it was a very successful evolutionary strategy. It allowed us to plan, to divide tasks, and to co-ordinate our efforts. This made us much more competitive.

Compared to Homo erectus, a close relative, we are small, lightly built, weak and slow. Erectus would have been a frighteningly effective hunter and may even have preyed on us in our early history. But erectus couldn’t talk, at least as we understand it. They probably communicated vocally, but that’s not talking. Simple communications only. The whole notion of oral culture—something we take for granted, like the air we breathe—is actually an incredible evolutionary step, and it is unique to us.

Almost certainly, from the earliest times of our existence, from the time we could first make a constructed phrase with a verb and a noun—the simplest grammatical structure—we used this ability not only to plan how to attack the wildebeest, but to tell stories. Mothers were talking to children, telling stories of where they came from, deep in our most distant past.

We don’t just talk; we think in speech, at least most of us do, most of the time. Inside our heads, we are constantly churning through ideas expressed in words. Such a great part of our imagination is verbalised that we often forget that there are other ways to think, skills that artists and musicians, dancers and makers, scientists and mathematicians develop to the highest level, but which we all use, all the time.

Being able to talk wasn’t a luxury: it was vital to our survival as a species.

About 74,000 years ago, something so nightmarishly devastating occurred that we could never have comprehended it, far less predicted it. A super-volcano in what is now Indonesia exploded.

This was no ordinary volcanic eruption. This was no Mount St Helens or Vesuvius. Nor was it Krakatoa or even Thera. The eruption, which left a vast caldera we call Lake Toba, erupted around three thousand cubic kilometres of magma. That’s equivalent to a cube of rock 31 kilometres (19.5 miles) long on each side, or to put it another way, significantly more than the entire volume of Mount Everest, calculated as a cone from sea-level to summit. A quarter of this material was blown into the sky as volcanic ash. Toba was a hundred times greater than the huge eruption at Krakatoa in the 19th century, and by far the greatest natural disaster humanity has survived.

Toba very nearly killed us all. It was a truly apocalyptic event. A volcanic winter ensued, that lasted for years, when the sun was permanently hidden by clouds of ash and gas. This provoked a mini-ice-age, so that even when the clouds cleared, the climate was very different, drier and colder. And it stayed that way for perhaps a millennium. But most destructive of all, at least in the first part of the catastrophe, must have been the tsunamis.

Tsunamis are a special kind of ocean wave caused by earthquakes and volcanoes. Unlike normal waves, where only the water at the surface is moving, and that vertically, the whole depth of water in a tsunami is moving, rushing outwards from the point of origin at hundreds of kilometres an hour. Anyone who has watched the terrifying footage of the 2004 tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia will have some idea of the power of a tsunami, but although that was big, Toba makes it look trivial. Furthermore, Toba didn’t just erupt and have done with it; after the initial blast and the first appalling destruction,  the aftershocks and subsequent eruptions may have continued for months, sending wave after wave of super-tsunamis out to devastate everything in their paths.

A tsunami has a very long wavelength—perhaps hundreds of kilometres—and remember, the water in it is actually moving. It’s not really a wave so much as a mountain of water. So a tsunami hundreds of metres high could also be hundreds of kilometres long. This means that coastal areas would not only have been flooded, but flooded again and again, with no way for the water to escape, as successive tsunamis thundered in. With no way for the water to escape to sea, it would have surged further and further inland. And this was no local event; the Toba super-tsunamis would have hurtled out in all directions until they hit a land-mass.

And when they hit Africa, they hit us. This was the crunch. This was the moment when humanity itself came close to extinction.

Science disagrees about how many of us were left after Toba; cautious estimates suggest a few thousand, but many geneticists think our numbers came down to a couple of hundred breeding pairs. Similar bottlenecks that occurred in other African species, for example cheetahs, chimpanzees and lowland gorillas, confirm the evidence of our own gene-pool; a near-extinction event hit us all.

After the floods receded, there would have been only death and hunger. The survivors, who must have been on high ground or near it, would have seen, where once there were limitless reaches of fertile grassland teeming with life, a devastated, post-apocalyptic landscape where everything had been killed. The lack of sun would have made the recovery slow, and the fall in Earth’s temperature would also have resulted in drought, as more water was held in the polar ice.

The grassland, once so rich in game, would have taken many years, perhaps generations, to recover, with the soil hopelessly salinated and no sun to warm it or rain to wash it clean. The huge herds that once grazed there must have all but disappeared. From a time when we could be assured of food for the morrow and a comfortable life, we were reduced to survival on the scant pickings that this appalling disaster left us, while predators, maddened themselves with hunger, saw us as easy targets. Our Paradise was indeed lost. We survived, but only just.

I believe we did so because we were talking. We communicated. We formulated strategies, we assigned roles, we consulted the elders, we made decisions. When we met other groups, we could exchange precise information, and our scouts could tell us exactly what they had found. But perhaps most important of all was something so simple that we even forget it.

We told stories to each other, and to our children. And those children, in turn, told them to theirs. And these stories contained all the collected wisdom of those who came before us, which we too had learned at our mothers’ knees. We invented oral tradition, and it saved us. All the things we needed to know—what plants were good to eat, where they grew, the techniques of hunting, where the game travelled, and the terrible story of the flood itself—were encapsulated in story. Certainly they were elaborated and woven into myth, but that is how oral tradition works.

The story of humanity is much more than just the milestones of our genes, or the geography of our expansion; it is the story of story itself. Our culture, which is based on our incessant chattering and our big brains, is what defines us.

We are not just the Toolmaking Ape, nor even simply the Talking Ape; we are the Storytelling Ape.

One thought on “The Storytelling Ape”

  1. A very convincing argument. At last, a blog wherein the writer doesn’t bang on about himself. Thank you Rod for an erudite, thought provoking piece.

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