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The Lascaux caves in southern France are the oldest known signs of storytelling. “A 36,000-year-old painting in the Chauvet cave,” according to a 2018 article in NewsArtnet, “is thought to tell the story of a volcanic eruption.”
Perhaps cave paintings were like PowerPoint presentations: graphics to amplify the story being told, and notes that served as visual reminders to tell that story again next winter when the community retreats into the cave once more. Maybe it served as a test question for youngsters preparing to be storytellers themselves.
Stories have been foundational to the cohesiveness of every culture. Sitting together listening to familiar stories increases a sense of connection and conveys shared values, history and cultural norms. Storytellers have been essential conveyors of shared history and genealogy, answering questions about creation, life and the afterlife.
The Agta people are hunter-gatherers descended from the first colonizers of the Philippines 35,000 years ago. According to research published in “Nature Communications,” their storytellers are more popular than even the best foragers, have greater reproductive success and are more likely to be cooperated with by other members of the camp.
Griots in sub-Saharan Africa perform the functions of storyteller, genealogist, historian and ambassador. Historically, this profession was hereditary. Now there are griot schools for formal training in storytelling.
The native Hawaiian word for story “moʻolelo,” also means history, legend and tradition.
As groups grew and spread out, the story tellers kept them connected. Medieval troubadours and Irish seanchaí spread the news and recited ancient lore, tales of wisdom and adventures of kings and heroes. All over the world, Jewish families retell the biblical story of Exodus every spring in a ritual known as the Passover seder.
Stories spark imagination, inspire and pass on the group’s cultural values to the next generation. When people feel connected to characters in stories, their brains release oxytocin, the “love” hormone, increasing compassion and kindness toward each other. Stories develop communications skills. Listening strengthens the brain’s ability to focus and concentrate.
We depend on science and facts for so much of our information that it is easy to forget the power of stories to reshape our perceptions. The role of stories in the future of our species is unknown, but the present struggle between facts and stories in current events could be predictive. In her book, “The Influential Mind,” neuroscientist Tali Sharot argues that story is one of the most powerful influences on our behavior.
“Facts alone,” she writes, “overlook the core of what makes us human; our fears, our desires, our prior beliefs. To make a change we must tap into those motives, presenting information in a frame that emphasizes common beliefs, triggers hope and expands people’s sense of agency.”
If cave paintings were the PowerPoint presentations of old, perhaps Zoom meetings in the time of social distancing are the modern equivalent. Children’s Reading Alliance is offering “Talking Stories/Cuentos que hablan” for families via Zoom to promote character and social justice through traditional tales. (Talking Stories/Cuentos que hablan is made possible by the New Mexico Humanities Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Las Cruces Bulletin.)
On April 16, Michael Mandel will tell Jon Scieszka’s “True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A. Wolf,” which is suitable for families with school-age children. In May, Carlos Aeves and Lucia Carmon combine story and music in Spanish and English to share the native American fable “How the Raven Got a Crooked Nose.”
Register at https.//cut.ly/skep9er.
For more information, contact Jennifer Alvarado at TalkingStories2021@gmail.com.
Children’s Reading Alliance President Emeritus Rorie Measure is artistic director of “Talking Stories/Cuentos que hablan.”