The memory code – How do indigenous societies orally transmit knowledge?

HSV Public Lecture by Dr Lynne Kelly, science writer, at Hawthorn Community Precinct on 27 October 2016

How many of Australia’s one hundred and twenty mammals can you name? Aboriginal elders are able to recall them all, as well as the names of birds, insects, fish, reptiles, plants, stars, their laws and genealogical records. And all of this from memory without access to any field guides.

When Lynne started work on a PhD thesis ten years ago, she envisaged writing about animal behavior and indigenous stories woven around this. However, she became tantalized by the breadth of knowledge among indigenous elders and amazed by how much was stored in memory. From that point, a fascinating journey began, with research into Australian indigenous culture, the Navajo Indians, the Pueblo culture and other pre-literate societies, as well as many early monuments such as Stonehenge, Carnac and Nasca.

When her PhD supervisor suggested that she read some background material on orality, she misheard the advice and initially thought that there was some question about her morality. Research into orality uncovered a wealth of information about how knowledge is made memorable, using song, dance, story, mythology, proverb and metaphor.

Song is a key strategy for indigenous Australian lore. The songlines, or Dreaming tracks, which both Bruce Chatwin and John Bradley have written about, are oral recitations of key information about navigation and the environment. They indicate where rituals should be performed to reinforce knowledge about trees, animals, water sources and tribal details related to the location. Song is an excellent way of imitating birdcalls – far better than any field guide – and dance a memorable way of displaying animal behavior. There may be some spiritual elements within these rituals, but at least seventy percent of the performance has a practical purpose, in large part related to survival strategies.

The Pueblo Indians have an elaborate anthology about corn mothers and corn maidens. For many centuries they have successfully kept pure strains of different coloured corn. Each colour is associated with a direction, blue for north, yellow for west, red for south, white for east, black for the zenith and all-coloured for the nadir. Corn cross-pollinates easily but if different varieties are available to choose from, a tribe may survive in the face of drought or other setback by planting the most suitable one. The agricultural knowledge about how to preserve purity and the optimum variety for the season resides with the chiefs as oral knowledge and is enshrined in ritual and stories.

Much lore about bird behavior has been verified by scientific research to be underpinned by a helpful rationale. For example, in New Guinea the natives wait until the bee-eater, Merops ornatus, has returned and is flying low across the terrain before they harvest their crops. Studies have shown that this pattern correlates with the start of the dry season. Alignment of stars in the Kuring-gai Chase in New South Wales was used to indicate the optimum time to collect emu eggs. Any earlier attempt would mean confrontation with an irate emu, and a later one would likely reveal only hatchlings.

Memory encoded from natural phenomena is used to define significant points in the calendar. At the Newgrange passage cairn in Ireland the sun’s rays illuminate the back wall of the central chamber at sunrise on the winter solstice.

The ancient Greeks, though starting with an oral tradition, later recorded a system of memory loci. Others call this the journey method. In it, a sequence of columns or buildings may be used as memory aids, or mnemonics, to help recall speeches or historical events. The stone circles at Avebury and the Nasca lines in Peru are other examples of this technique. For some people the journey is imagined. This technique is used by experts, such as Dominic O’Brien, who has been world memory champion eight times.

Many other cultures use memory aids, such as the churinga, or engraved shields, and coolamons, or food bowls, of Australian indigenous tribes, the knotted string khipu of the South American Incas and the memory boards, or lukasas, of the Luba in Central Africa. The function of Scottish carved stone balls has eluded the experts for centuries, but Lynne believes that they also are memory aids.

She has devised her own lukasa to test the idea and showed us how she has memorized the birds of Australia, all 408 of them, in taxonomic order, by using a small wooden plaque to which she has attached small shells and beads to represent the 82 families. Having considered herself to have a poor memory she is now a passionate convert to this technique. She also uses the same device to link other sets of information, such as historical facts, and finds that she can now retrieve the information without physically needing the board, merely by visualizing it.

Stonehenge on the Salisbury plain in England has been thought to have been a cemetery, observatory or healing centre. Lynne also sees it as a performance space. A henge is defined as an area of ground enclosed by a ditch with an external bank. The ditch at Stonehenge has been filled in on purpose and also altered by erosion over 5,000 years, but its outline is still visible. It was originally constructed with a flat floor and ran round the perimeter in a series of segments. Lynne believes that these ditches were used as performance spaces for the sharing of ritual and lore. They would have been much more sheltered during the important mid-winter ceremonies than the open space above and also offered a degree of privacy.

She has explored many different non-literate cultures, both ancient and contemporary, in a quest to understand their strategies for passing on information critical for survival and the continuance of culture. In many cases it was classified as secret business. This is likely to have been a precaution to limit the risk of corruption posed by indiscriminate repetition. She has found similarity in the strategies used by a large range of diverse cultures and in some instances the know-ledge of birds, insects and plants has exceeded that known to modern scientists.?

Further references:

Lynne Kelly’s web site

Kelly, Lynne, The Memory Code, Allen and Unwin, 2016.

Chatwin, Bruce, The Songlines, 1987.

Bradley, John, Singing Saltwater Country: Journey to the songlines of Carpentaria, Allen and Unwin, 2010.

Report by Jennie Stuart

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