Category Archives: Anthropology

Final Thoughts (for now) about Oral Narratives

I’ve written so far about the conditions necessary for an oral narrative to be passed down unchanged. To be preserved at all, the people who tell the story must find some value in it for their present lives, regardless of what it meant to their ancestors. And to be passed down unchanged, it must be told for some purpose that would be hindered if the story is altered.

These conditions are difficult, but obviously not impossible, to meet. And, just as obviously, a narrative can potentially be perceived as worth being told by any society that encounters it. If a story were to emerge anywhere that, for whatever reason, resonates with people in most cultures, it could easily spread worldwide in a remarkably short amount of time; certainly much shorter than the 4,000 years calculated for an individual to become a universal genealogical ancestor. This might even happen if, after the story began to spread, it ceased for some reason to be told in its culture of origin. However, if a society that adopts a story uses it for a different purpose than did the society from which the story was learned, the likelihood of it remaining unchanged would be altered as well.

The conclusion that this all leads to is that, even if it were known that a particular traditional story were inspired by a historic event, the observed present distribution of the story could not be used to determine the location where that event had occurred, or to reconstruct the specific details of the event. That information would need to be obtained from a different source.


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More Thoughts About Oral Narratives

Back in February I explained why the ultimate origin of a traditional story isn’t an especially interesting or important question. However, I don’t want anybody to misunderstand what I was saying. I’m not at all claiming that a traditional story can’t be passed down essentially unchanged over long periods of time; I’m saying that it won’t be passed down unchanged, or at all for that matter, without there being a reason.

In societies without writing, like Mesopotamia at the time the Gulf Oasis would have last been above water, stories can’t sit unread in an archive waiting for some scholar to rediscover them at a later time. There’s no possibility of a story surviving unless it’s told. And people don’t just randomly talk into the air; storytellers have a purpose (or purposes) in mind. So a story that nobody has a reason to tell will disappear.

The willingness of the teller to make changes in a story depends critically on the purpose for which it is told. If a story is told purely for entertainment it doesn’t matter how it changes in the telling, as long as the audience finds the result entertaining (compare the fairy tales of Charles Perrault with their Disney descendants to see a great example of this). If the story is part of a magical ritual, or an invocation to a deity who might be offended if everything isn’t done perfectly, there is a very strong incentive to tell the story exactly the same way each time. It’s not enough just to say the story is sacred, however; it’s the purpose that matters. A sacred story used to instruct children in the proper way to behave might be capable of absorbing some changes, even while other parts of the story remain constant. The only way an oral story remains constant over time is if it has to in order to fulfill the purpose for which it is told.

(And, of course, all of the above only applies if we’re considering things from a human perspective. If an omnipotent God wants a story to be passed down unchanged, he is quite capable of causing that to happen.)


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Ancient Near Eastern Creation Stories

In his book Old Testament Cosmology and Divine Accommodation: A Relevance Theory Approach, Old Testament scholar John W. Hilber offers the interesting observation that:

“First, it is important to keep in mind that there is no ancient Near Eastern creation account per se, whether one considers Mesopotamia, Egypt, Anatolia, or the Levant. Various traditions that are related to creation were put into the service of texts with other interests. This in itself is instructive, since it shows that the interests of the ancients revolved around questions such as theogony, cultic order, the relationship between gods and humans, magic, participating in creation cycles to overcome death, or the concerns of agriculture – not the age of the earth or how earth’s natural history unfolded. What was important to the ancients was the final order of the universe as it pertains to time, weather, and food production as well as implications for temple service. In terms of relevance theory, it is inherently improbable that Gen 1 addresses chronology of natural history or any question of interest to modern science”

Speaking more broadly, it is to be expected that some of the symbols (and all language, including written language, is a system of symbols) produced by a culture other than our own may well appear to have straight forward, obvious interpretations that are, nevertheless, not correct. It really is the case that some things which are self-evidently true to people raised in one culture are self-evident nonsense to people who grew up in a different culture.

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Our Common Ancestors, part 2

In my last post, I mentioned biologist S. Joshua Swamidass, who has taken the concept of genealogical descent in a theological direction. In his book The Genealogical Adam and Eve: The Surprising Science of Universal Ancestry he develops the idea that a man and woman who were miraculously created de novo in the Middle East 6,000 or more years ago and whose descendants interbred with people living outside the garden (who evolved over millions of years) would almost certainly not be detectable by any current scientific methods and could, by the beginning of the first century AD, be the genealogical ancestors of everybody on Earth without invoking any extraordinary coincidences or miracles beyond their initial creation.

Importantly, Swamidass does not argue that the scientific evidence supports this hypothesis, merely that it does not rule it out. That is, since it would be incredibly unlikely that one specific couple at that temporal distance would be detectable either genetically or archaeologically, the lack of evidence for their existence is meaningless. However, that lack of evidence also means that belief in their existence has to come from some other source, such as trust in the Bible; it is not a reasonable inference from the scientific data alone.

For believers, Swamidass shows that a traditional reading of Genesis 2-3 can be maintained without having to explain away the massive amount of scientific evidence that Homo sapiens shares common ancestry with apes and has never dropped to a population of less than about 10,000 individuals. The scientific account of human origins describes the people outside the garden, many of whom are every bit as much our ancestors as Adam and Eve. The Biblical account would be understood as describing two specific individuals of special theological importance. Because these people are universal genealogical ancestors, most theological understandings of original sin remain intact. (Understandings that depend upon genetics rather than genealogy are, in my view, suspect regardless, since the Biblical authors had no concept of genetics, but make extensive use of genealogies.)

This is a idea that offers people with different beliefs about human origins some common ground on which they can interact (hopefully) without hostility. And, interestingly, it also illustrates a practical application of Stephen J. Gould’s well-known concept of non-overlapping magisteria.


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Our Common Ancestors, part I

“To the extent that ancestry is considered in genealogical rather than genetic terms, our findings suggest a remarkable proposition: no matter the languages we speak or the colour of our skin, we share ancestors who planted rice on the banks of the Yangtze, who first domesticated horses on the steppes of the Ukraine, who hunted giant sloths in the forests of North and South America, and who laboured to build the Great Pyramid of Khufu.” – Rohde, Olson, and Chang, “Modeling the recent common ancestry of all living humans” quoted in Swamidass 2019.

The quote above was a comment on a study the authors performed on universal genealogical (not genetic) ancestors. Understanding this begins with the realization that each of us has vastly more genealogical ancestors than genetic ones. Genealogical ancestry refers to every single person whom you can claim as a biological ancestor. Generally, that mean two parents, four grandparents, and so forth, doubling with each generation you go back. In just a few generations, the number of ancestors you have becomes enormous. However, most of those people have not contributed any DNA to you. This is because the DNA molecule, although made up of millions of base pairs, is not divisible just anywhere. During reproduction, it divides into discrete chunks, which are passed on as units. (The number of chunks involved is somewhat larger than the number of chromosomes you have, but not immensely so.) This means that just a few generations back, it’s impossible for most of your genealogical ancestors to have contributed any DNA to you. This is even more pronounced if you limit your search to certain portions of your DNA. Mitochondrial DNA, for example, only passes from mother to child, meaning that only one person in each generation is your mitochondrial ancestor.

Genealogical ancestors, as I mentioned above, double in each generation. So after 40 generations, or about 1,000 years if you consider a generation to be 25 years, you would have over one trillion ancestors. This is, obviously, far more people than have ever lived, so equally obviously, a large majority of your ancestors that far back will be people you are related to along more than one line. I have the same number of ancestors you do, so no matter how far different we seem to be, it’s very likely that within just a few hundred years, we start having ancestors in common.

In 1999, Joseph Chang published the results of a computer simulation in which he calculated that everybody alive on planet Earth was related through an ancestor who lived roughly 700 years ago. Chang used a very simple model, which didn’t take into account that some populations are more isolated than others. A more careful study in 2004 by Rohde, Olson, and Chang refined the date of the most recent universal genetic ancestor (MRUGA) to about 2,000 years ago, and this finding seems to be holding on pretty well. Even more interesting is the identical ancestors point (IAP). It should be apparent to anybody thinking about it that the further back in time you go, the more ancestors we have in common. The IAP is the point in time where everybody alive on the planet either has no descendants in the present day, or is an ancestor of everybody alive. That point comes roughly twice as far back as the MRUGA, or about 4,000 years.

This finding drives the last nail into any biological argument in favor of racism. Every single one of us is related to every other one of us so recently that any idea of race is simply absurd. It’s long been observed that human biological variation does not cluster into identifiable races, and genealogical ancestry reveals why that’s the case; no human population has been isolated anywhere near long enough for separate races to have evolved.

This finding also led computational biologist S. Joshua Swamidass to an even more interesting finding, with theological implications. But that’s a subject for another post.


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Traditional Narratives – Why a Story’s Origin Isn’t Important

I said last time that the origin of a traditional narrative is not a particularly interesting or useful question. That seems counterintuitive, but it’s easy to understand if you think about your own stories. Every one of us has stories we can tell about interesting or unusual things that we’ve experienced. If you’re like most people, you know a few stories about things that happened to your parents before you were born. And possibly a few from your grandparents, although most likely not very many. The more generations back you go, the fewer stories you probably know. Why don’t you know those stories? Obviously because nobody told them to you. Even extremely interesting stories don’t tend to get passed down once there’s nobody alive who remembers the people who experienced them. They don’t become sacred history.

The principle here is that narratives are only passed on if they are in some way important to the living people who hear and tell them. An interesting anecdote that happened to somebody you know is important because of the relationship you have with that person. A sacred story – a myth – is only passed on as a sacred story if it is relevant to the lived reality of the people telling and hearing it. Just being old doesn’t make it sacred. When considering myths, therefore, the question that needs to be answered is not how did this story get started, or what historical basis it might have, but what does it mean to the people for whom it is sacred.

Now, this is all assuming we’re talking about an oral narrative. Written texts are a little different. A text that is considered sacred may contain passages that are not especially important to current readers, because the sacred character of the text as a whole precludes changing or removing them (c. f. Biblical genealogies for many modern Christians). With a written text, the question to be considered is what did this story mean at the time it was added to the canon – which may or may not be the same as the time it was first told, or even first written down. Oral traditions, however, do not have the kind of connection with a greater whole that would keep then in the “canon” once they are no longer relevant to modern listeners.

So when you find that certain myths are present in many different cultures all over the world, that’s an indication that certain ideas are relevant to the lives of people in a huge variety of natural and cultural environments. And that’s a very interesting finding, because it may be telling us something about the way the human brain works, if we’re just clever enough to figure it out.


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Flood Stories

Following up on my last post, the worldwide flood is easily the most commonly encountered myth just about anywhere you look. Generally the flood leaves only a bare handful of survivors who frequently, although certainly not always, stay alive by taking refuge in a box or other container. In some myths the survivors are human, in which case everybody in the present world descended from them. In other cases they are divine or semi-divine beings, and the creation of mankind occurs after the flood. In any case, the flood seems to serve as a type of return to the primordial, watery chaos out of which the world was first formed, and serves to separate an ancient world of supernatural beings from the current world dominated by humans.

Now, before I go any further, I need to make it clear that I am approaching this subject as an anthropologist. Therefore, by “myth” I mean a sacred narrative, believed to be true, which often plays a central role within a larger belief system (Lehmann, Myers, and Moro 2005:54). I specifically do not mean that it is fictitious or false. Myths express sacred truths to believers, and there is nothing about the status of a story as myth that prevents it from also being historically accurate. (Nor, it must be said, is there anything that requires it to be. The historical accuracy, or lack thereof, of any narrative, is simply not relevant to its being a myth.)

In addition to the Great Flood story, there are some other myths that are found all over the world. Examples include:

  • A man makes a long journey to the world of the dead to try and recover his wife. He finds her, but on the return trip he violates some sort of prohibition, resulting in his being unable to bring her back to the world of the living (often called the Orpheus myth, after the protagonist in the Greek version of this story).


  • With the world originally covered in water an animal, often a duck or other water bird, dives down to the very bottom and returns with bit of mud from the bottom under it’s fingernails. From that bit of mud, dry land is created.


  • People obtain fire by stealing it from a group of divine or semi-divine beings. Often the theft is carried out by animals, who are pursued and pass the fire from one to another as a sort of relay.

Many other myths are widespread within geographical regions. (The monster slaying Hero Twins being one example that is found throughout much of North America.)


To relate this back to my last post, when we’re discussing narratives like these, that are widely distributed throughout the world, it must not be assumed that the story in question had not been part of any particular cultural tradition for millennia prior to the oldest textual record of it that survived to the present day. In the absence of evidence that the story was not part of certain cultural traditions prior to a particular date, we can not make any assumption about who had that story first. Therefore, any speculation about borrowing in one direction or another is unwarranted. Applied to the specific situation of the ancient near east, I consider it likely that the Great Flood story did not originate with any of the historically identified cultures of the region, but is quite a bit older than any of them.

In addition, we also need to keep in mind that the origin of a traditional narrative isn’t a particularly interesting or useful question. That, however, will need to addressed in another blog post.


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Comparative Cosmogony – a Minor Rant

I’ve been reading Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context by John H. Walton. Chapter 1 gives a good survey of the cosmological material, that’s accessible to people (like me) who don’t read any ancient near eastern languages. The discussion of various theories of borrowing in one direction or another is interesting and seems, from my layman’s point of view, to be reasonably well balanced. But any time I see any discussion along those lines, it always leaves me desperately wishing that scholars of ancient near eastern literature would do at least a little reading in world mythology and the anthropology of folklore. There seems to be no recognition whatsoever that some of the themes that are the biggest areas of contention – especially the flood story and the idea of a watery primordial chaos – have a worldwide distribution. These elements are far more likely to be revealing something about the way human brains work than to be cases of borrowing from one “original” story.

That said, the comparisons of ancient narratives (irrespective of any borrowing that may or may not have occurred) has been interesting to read, and I’m looking forward to see what Walton has to say about other literary forms.


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Social networking in the past

Popular Archaeology has an intriguing article about social networking among the Hadza, a nomadic people living in East Africa whose primary form of subsistence is hunting and gathering. A team led by Coren Apicello found that the Hadza form social networks among themselves very similar to those formed using Facebook and other modern communications tools. The finding suggests that this form of human interaction may be very old.

I have one disagreement with the article, however, and that is that it too quickly assumes that the behavior of modern hunter-gatherer peoples is necessarily the same as that of peoples living thousands of years ago. This is not a valid assumption. It is widely recognized in archaeology that ancient cultures often differ in significant ways from those visited by anthropologists. This study of social networks therefore can only suggest how people might have interacted in the past, not definitely show that they behaved that way. Regardless of this, though, it is still a very interesting finding that should prompt further research.


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Highly recommended

We’ve been traveling through Northeastern California and Oregon over the past few days, taking a little vacation. Yesterday we were in Bend, so we went out to see the High Desert Museum. I was very impressed by the exhibit showing Indian Nations of the Columbia River Plateau. Far too many of the museums that I’ve visited focus almost entirely on Indian cultures before European contact, helping to perpetuate the “Vanishing Indian” myth that should itself have vanished long ago. This exhibit devotes most of its space to showing how Indian societies have adapted from the time the Europeans first arrived until the present, preserving some parts of their cultures while changing others. Surviving though numerous changes in both White social attitudes and government policies, it was the Indians themselves who decided how to adapt to new technologies and new ways of life without losing their identity in the process. This exhibit appears to have been designed in close cooperation with the various tribes of the Plateau region. The next time you’re near Bend, it’s definitely worth a stop.


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