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The Storytelling Animal

Sulawesi – an Indonesian island east of Borneo, comprising of several long peninsulas radiating from a mountainous centre – is famous for coral reefs and dive sites, such as Bunaken National Park, the Togian Islands and Wakatobi National Park. An archaeological investigation was going on there inside a cave in December 2017. In course of the excavation process, a researcher – named Hamrullah – noticed that there was a huge hole in the ceiling of the cave! He realised that he could go to somewhere else through that hole. Well, he discovered that the hole was basically the entrance of another cave! As he entered the second cave, Hamrullah found a 4.5m-wide image painted on the wall, there!

What was the content of the image? Precisely, a hunting scene. Eight men were chasing two pigs and four buffaloes! No, they were not fully human… although all of them had manly bodies, their faces were of animals. In anthropological terms, it is called ‘Therianthropy‘, the mythological ability of human beings to metamorphose into other animals by means of shape-shifting…

As if the researchers unearthed treasures inside the cave! Their primary task was to determine the antiquity of that painting. They discovered that it was painted on Calcite rocks that contained Uranium. As Uranium fades with the time, it becomes easier to calculate the antiquity of art-works painted on Calcite rocks. And, the researchers found that the painting was 43,900 years old! In recent past, similar cave drawings found at Les Trois Frères in France, depicting ancient beliefs in the concept. However, those were nearly 24,000 years old. Meanwhile, the largest Therianthropy was discovered in Germany… it was just 4,000 years old.

A nearly 44,000-year-old hunting scene is the oldest known storytelling art. The panel was found in an island cave in Indonesia

Archaeologists Maxim Aubert and Adam Brumm, both of Griffith University in Gold Coast, Australia and members of the Research Team, were stunned not only by the antiquity, but also by the subject matter of that painting! It was not just a hunting scene. Hunting is usually performed by human beings.

Why, then, the Therianthropes? The researchers realised that it was not an original hunting scene. In an article titled ‘Earliest Hunting Scene in Prehistoric Art‘ and published in Nature magazine, Aubert wrote: “It’s a narrative scene.” Indeed, the painting was an imaginary one. The Australian scientist claimed that imagination was an essential part of story-telling. Therefore, the painting was the human beings’ first attempt to tell a story! Now the question that arises here is: Why would people draw pictures or why would they tell stories? Is that only to satisfy their aesthetic senses?

It seems that Charles Robert Darwin (February 12, 1809 – April 19, 1882) had made an attempt to find a suitable answer to it nearly 150 years ago! While discussing about his idea of ‘Natural Selection‘ in 1859, the noted English naturalist, geologist and biologist had said that the ultimate aim of human beings was to create their off-springs! However, it became difficult for them to feed their off-springs, mainly because of the limitations of wealth in the world. Therefore, it became crucial for human beings to fight for their existence. Those, who would win this battle, would get an opportunity to produce more off-springs! And, the off-springs would have to adjust themselves with the nature in order to survive. Else, they would have to leave this world. That is why Natural Selection is so important!


Of course, Darwin’s idea had some flaws. Perhaps, he failed to narrate the entire story of evolution. Sexual intercourse is required to produce off-springs. So, one of the major factors of evolution is sexual intercourse! Darwin, possibly, lacked the boldness to mention it clearly, in his ‘Origin of Species‘, as he got a hint that a majority of the people would not accept his ideas of evolution. He was right, as churches strongly criticised his theory.

Twelve years later, Darwin penned another book, ‘The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex‘ (1871), to clear his stand on the issue. In that publication, he clearly stated that monkeys are the ancestors of human beings! He also discussed about the sexual selection through mate choice in details. Here, he admitted that the Natural Selection was not the last word in evolutionary warfare, as Sexual Selection was equally important! While Natural Selection helps human beings survive, Sexual Selection allows them to produce off-springs.

In ‘The Descent‘, Darwin wrote that two members of the same species looked different. Even a male bird could change the beauty of its next generation by choosing an ideal female partner, and vice versa. He further wrote that those, who would accept this Sexual Selection process, would reach a beautiful decision! According to Darwin, the brain not only controls our body parts, but also creates our mental qualities.

Unfortunately, majority of the people did not like ‘The Descent‘, too. That is why there was no discussions about his Sexual Selection for many years. Geoffrey Miller, a Professor at University College London, believes that human minds evolved not as survival machines, but also as courtship machines. “Evolution is driven not just by Natural Selection for survival, but by an equally important process that Darwin called Sexual Selection through mate choice,” he stressed.

As far as the mammals are concerned, males have to entertain the females… the reason, seemingly behind it, is Biology. While men have the opportunity to produce off-springs by having sex for minutes, the women folk have to carry them for few months. Mothers do not get a break till the off-springs manage to feed themselves. So, the Sexual Selection process is a difficult one for the women! That is why men have to depend on the mental state of the women. From Darwin’s perspective, the fourth gift of Sexual Selection is: The tendency of men to highlight their qualities through language, art, music and various other ways. Or simply: Aesthetics!

Aesthetics are often viewed as the opposite of Pragmatics. It is a fact that language, art and music do not meet our daily needs. Then, how they exist? Naturally, their existence be inquisition, then. German Biologist Ernst Grosse tried to find an answer in his publication ‘The Beginnings of Art‘ (1897)! However, his answer was not at all satisfactory. He wrote that those, who spent times in aesthetic activities, were about to disappear in the process of Natural Selection. American Anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake, too, made an attempt to find an answer in her ‘What is Art for?‘ (1988) and ‘Homo Aesthetics‘ (1992). She believes that various forms of art have three main characteristics. Firstly, it is not limited to one particular nation, as it can be found in any place. Secondly, art only satisfies the artist and its beholders. Thirdly, art can be practiced. So, art plays an important role in evolution!

What role does the Art play? Experts give many explanations to it! Some say that it enhances the bonding of fraternity among the artists, while others believe that it allows people to see the world from a different perspective, or brings people closer to the nature etc. In his ‘The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature‘, Professor Miller said that the male bird, and not the female bird, usually builds the nest, and waits for his partner to stay there with him. The duty of the female bird is to lay egg. Then, the author discussed about three world-famous painters: Amedeo Modigliani, Paul Gauguin and Pablo Picasso! Modigliani, under the influence of cocaine, used to make almost every model his bed-partner. Gauguin had infected many of his girlfriends with syphilis, while Picasso had spent nights with a number of women and fathered many of their children. Until his death in 1973 at the age of 99, Picasso had created 14,000 paintings, 34,000 illustrations and 100,000 engravings! Miller stated that he loved the song on Picasso… “Well he was only 5’3″/But girls could not resist his stare.” According to the Professor, Picasso’s works are not only the Fitness Indicator, but also the Courtship Tool.

And Story-telling? Professor Miller made an attempt to analyse this with a fine example… 1001 Arabian Nights! The main frame story concerns King Shahryar, who was shocked to learn that his brother’s wife was unfaithful. Discovering that his own wife’s infidelity has been even more flagrant, he had her killed. In his bitterness and grief, the king decided to kill all the women. Shahryar began to marry a succession of virgins only to execute each one the next morning, before she would have a chance to dishonour him. Eventually the vizier, whose duty was to provide them, could not find virgins any more. Then, the Vizier’s daughter, Scheherazade, offered herself as the next bride, and her father reluctantly agreed. On the night of their marriage, Scheherazade began to tell the king a tale, but did not finish it. The king, curious about how the story would end, was forced to postpone her execution in order to hear the conclusion. The next night, as soon as she finished the tale, she began another one, and the king, eager to hear the conclusion of that tale as well, postponed her execution once again. This went on for 1001 nights. Till then, Scheherazade became the mother of the king’s three children. So, the king decided not to kill Scheherazade. What a plot! Miller wrote that people love stories, and each and every civilisation has its own beautiful stories. As Scheherazade was an excellent story-teller, she emerged as the ‘Fitness Indicator‘. And, King Shahryar rightly realised that his children would carry the good genes of Scheherazade.

Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at the Harvard University, believes that as stories deal with the unreal world of fantasy, they could have the capability to erase the Natural Selection. However, it is yet to happen. Perhaps, stories help people realise the real world, and serve as a bridge between the society and life. Brian Boyd, a Professor of English Literature in New Zealand and author of the book ‘On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction‘, has coined a new term ‘Evocriticism‘ or ‘Evolutionary Criticism‘. He has said that people should bin the conventional genres of literary criticism, such as Socio-economic, Feminist, Post-modernist, etc. Instead, he has advised people to do the job from the evolutionary point of view. Boyd’s suggestions have encouraged English Professor at Washington & Jefferson College Jonathan Gottschall to pen a book, titled: ‘The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human‘. He has claimed that novels, movies, dramas, even sports or judicial trials are all stories! According to Professor Gottschall, human beings love stories because stories help them overcome crises. Therefore, the urge to survive prompts people to tell and to hear stories!

In his novel ‘Waterland‘, Graham Swift rightly said: “But man – let me offer you a definition – is the storytelling animal. Wherever he goes he wants to leave behind not a chaotic wake, not an empty space, but the comforting marker-buoys and trail-signs of stories. He has to go on telling stories, he has to keep on making them up. As long as there’s a story, it’s all right.

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