More than memory

Most of us know a place where sculpted rocks, majestic trees or perhaps the light give us a feeling the place is special. We sense something mysterious and wonderful – beyond the normality of everyday life.

Now, imagine you are young and visiting such a place. It is in the land of your people, a clan of hunter-gatherers. Your parents tell you the story of the place. You can see the marks left as mythical ancestors fought and played, acting out momentous, tragic events.

You will never forget this story, and you will never forget the place. They are locked together in your mind.

But the story doesn’t stop there. The ancestors roamed clan territory, leaving traces at every point. It’s easy to remember their bizarre, dramatic acts, which become inseparable from the marks they left behind on the landscape. Story and land merge in a mental map that means you always know where you are and what lies in every direction.

Now you are older and ready to be initiated. Back at the special place you learn there is more to the story. The ancestor turned into a millipede leaving those marks – one for each verse of a song you must now learn; many generations old, it holds vital information you can’t afford to get wrong.

Time passes – you are an elder. You know a thousand songs, chants, stories and dances. They tell about the animals – their life cycles, how they feed and breed, how to hunt them and the rules for dividing the kill. You know which plants you can eat and how to prepare them. The songs tell you the clues, on land and in the night sky, of the passing seasons, so you know when to move as game becomes abundant or plants fruit. The songs tell you the laws of your people and the gods and spirits you must appease. They contain your people’s history and relations with neighbouring groups.

As an elder you have authority, with others, to create new stories for events worthy of memory.

With so much to remember you have songs to list and a ceremonial cycle mapped to each of the locations you visit, so you can be certain that every story is regularly rehearsed.

Spread through your mind and the minds of others in your group is the total knowledge of your people. It is a repository of incredible detail, containing information of practical importance as well as the beliefs that define your understanding of the universe and your place within it. Without a written language, you must keep it ever alive and pass it on completely and accurately. So of course, you use the method by which it came to you, in interwoven branches of story and song that emanate from the landscape myths you learnt as a child. The whole of your country serves as a gigantic mnemonic device for this knowledge.

The trick of using stories tied to features in a location as a memory aid is no secret. Modern speed-memory competitors use the technique, linking each card in a deck to locations within a familiar place pictured in the mind’s eye – a so-called memory palace, a mnemonic device first used in ancient Greece and Rome.

Ethnologists have known for some time how preliterate societies told stories linked to their environments. We can see the method in oral cultures of Native Americans, Africans, Polynesians and Australian Aborigines.

Once all peoples must have used systems of this kind. In the Western tradition, for example, the Iliad was recited from memory.

In her latest book, The Memory Code, Australian science writer and La Trobe University oral history researcher Lynne Kelly stresses the effectiveness of the method to accurately remember and transmit vast amounts of knowledge. This sets the ground for her main thesis: that numerous prehistoric sites around the world had a primary function as memory aids, serving as knowledge centres for peoples transitioning from hunter-gatherer to settled agricultural lifestyles. Her list includes henges, cairns and standing stones in Western Europe, Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, Neolithic temple complexes in Malta, Pueblo “great houses” in the southwestern United States and the giant, geometric animals cut into the Nazca Plain in Peru.

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Lynne Kelly has used prehistoric mnemonic systems in more than 30 of her personal memory projects.
Credit: Michelle Ransom-Hughes / ABC Radio

The basic idea is simple. If you no longer cover all of your territory on a regular basis but need to retain knowledge via stories linked to specific locations, you have to transfer the stories into objects closer to hand. Take henges as an example: rough, dissimilar rocks with pits, grooves and natural markings will do – the actions of the ancestors can be imagined into these. So much the better if the rocks are from where the original story was set, thereby retaining a spiritual connection to it. Spacing the rocks so you encounter them separately and in sequence aids their use.

Small objects, well suited to be mnemonic devices, have also been found at all of these sites. These include bones, patterned chalk plates, stone balls, pottery and wooden plaques. Current oral cultures encode knowledge into objects like this, so it’s fair to attribute the same use to the ancient artefacts.

In addition, all of the sites have performance spaces – essential to this method of knowledge retention. The songs and stories have to be ritually rehearse so they are not forgotten, and so the young can learn them. Larger henges were surrounded by segmented ditches. Stonehenge’s ditch had 60 elongated pits two to five metres wide. Kelly imagines one in use: dancers in masks, flickering flame-light, chanting and drums reverberating off the white chalk walls while an audience watches. Such performances would have added to the memorability of the stories enacted.

Common to almost all the sites are pathways serving no apparent practical use. These might have served processional chanting. By using such tracks, story lines covering hundreds of kilometres might have been condensed into hundreds of metres. The abstract animal designs on the Nasca Plain are the prime example of this; in every case the outline is a continuous path that could be walked, chanting appropriately for each section.

Kelly acknowledges that spiritual belief must have been entwined throughout the stories of these peoples, but her focus is on the practical.

We will have to wait and see how her claims about these sites – work for which she recently received her PhD – stand up to ongoing academic scrutiny.

In the meantime she gives weight to her arguments with more than 30 personal memory projects. When she says that the Inca arrangements of strings and knots known as quipus are excellent mnemonic devices, she knows it to be so because she has used one for the history of art. She has all the countries of the world told into objects around her house and garden, and the Earth’s geological history in the houses, fences and letterboxes on the block where she walks the dog. More than 400 local bird species are told into a small block of wood with glued-on buttons and shells, copying African lukasa still in use.

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Prehistoric animal outlines such as this one on Peru’s Nazca Plain may have helped early peopes pass down knowledge.
Credit: Martin Bernetti / AFP / Getty Images

Kelly describes how effective and easy the method is once you’ve got the hang of it, and how it inspires her to fill gaps in her knowledge. She notes the strong emotional attachment she has to her stories and songs, and how, although she cannot explain it clearly, it constitutes for her a completely different way of knowing.

So, even putting aside her thesis about ancient sites, Kelly’s book still offers plenty to consider. For one, we can see contemporary oral cultures as less different to our own. Perspectives of peoples’ oral traditions are often shot through with condescension. Kelly offers a new viewpoint, showing us people who, faced with a problem, developed an effective way of overcoming it.

There’s also food for thought when we consider that this way of remembering possibly emerged not long after the development of language itself. So it could well be that our brains are wired in a way particularly suited to it. If so, why not continue to use it? Imagine children on their first day of school being taken by the teacher for a walk around the grounds, telling stories.

In this age when information can be easily sourced online, there is still a case for memory. There is value in having information already in our minds, where we can ponder it, turn it over and find unexpected, interesting new connections. Perhaps preliterate societies might offer us valuable lessons.

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