Firelight stories shape our culture

It wasn’t a real campfire but the effect was the same. We settled for a propane campfire after wood campfires were banned. Other than being instantly on and producing no smoke, the propane briquettes flickered as brightly and radiated a warm glow.


It didn’t take long until we were transfixed by the fire and drawn into sheltering canopy of flickering light that spread only a little beyond our circle to the tree tops. Beyond our little circle, the great sphere of stars above: that slowly rotating screen of ancient constellations.

As dark draws the circle tighter, stories real and fantastic are told. Imagination takes flight and the mundane matters of the day concerning food and water fade.

The primal firelight connects us with our ancient selves. Polly Wiessner, anthropology professor at the University of Utah, wondered what it was about firelight that is so compelling. Since the stories of early humans are not embedded in the charcoal remains of their fires, she did the next best thing and studied the culture of a people for whom firelight is not a summertime novelty but part of daily life.

“What I found was a big difference between day and night conversation, the kinds of information transmitted and the use of imaginary thought,” Wiessner told CBC’s Quirks and Quarks.

Stories told by firelight transform societies and encourage innovation through imagining what couldn’t be seen. Prof. Wiessner found that firelight helped human culture and thought evolve by reinforcing social traditions, promoting harmony and equality, and sparking the imagination to envision a broad sense of community, both with distant people and the spirit world.

This study goes beyond the obvious effects of fire on cooking and how the processing of food affected diets and anatomy. Not much research has gone into how firelight extends the day, especially in tropical latitudes where it is dark for 12 hours a day. “Little is known about how important the extended day was for igniting the embers of culture and society.”

“There is something about fire in the middle of the darkness that bonds, mellows and also excites people. It’s intimate,” says Wiessner, who has studied the !Kung Bushmen the Kalahari Desert for 40 years. “Nighttime around a fire is universally time for bonding, for telling social information, for entertaining, for a lot of shared emotions.”

Wiessner found daytime conversations differed considerably. Of daytime conversations, 34 per cent were complaints, criticism and gossip to regulate social relationships; 31 per cent were economic matters, such as hunting for dinner; 16 percent were jokes; only 6 percent were stories. At night 80 per cent were stories.

“Stories are told in virtually all hunter-gatherer societies; together with gifts, they were the original social media.” Firelight stories are more than flights of fancy. They allow us to imagine worlds and communities beyond our own.

Such extended communities allowed humans “to colonize our planet because they had networks of mutual support, which you see expressed today in our capacity for social networking. Humans form communities that are not together in space, but are in our heads – virtual communities. They are communities in our heads.”


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