Imagining Society: The Art of Firelight Stories

Session Date: 
Jun 1, 2018

Some 300-400,000 years ago, early humans gained control of fire, extending the day and significantly altering their circadian rhythms. Humans became the shortest sleepers of all primates. Since the 4-6 hours gained was not economically productive time, selection pressures for these changes must have been strong. What were the benefits to human societies of the extending the day by firelight?

Here I will compare day and night conversations and activities of the Kalahari Bushmen to better understand what transpires at during firelit hours. In contrast to the practicalities and gossip of the day, the atmosphere of the night around hearths draws people into the domain of the imagination via the arts of song, dance and story telling.  The art of story telling inspires the formation of mental images regarding social institutions not present to the senses and never wholly perceived in reality. While daily life in small bands does not convey an overarching view of Bushman society, fireside stories review kinship relations, past marriages, visions of the spirit world or travels along networks.  They stimulate the senses with images and emotions that allow people to imagine the big picture of society, intangible though it is.  They create a space and context for people to understand the perspectives of others and to imagine society and their relative positions in it. In view of this, it is not surprising that stories whether conveyed by voice, film or the written word continue to ignite the imagination in all societies today.

File 2018_06_01_08_Wiessner-Web.mp481.1 MB