The Origins of Our Art, Culture, and those Heads on Easter Island…
From the Ridiculous to the Sublime
If you have even a passing interest in the ancient world and the lives of our ancestors, you’ve no doubt heard a myriad of explanations for the origins of Neolithic structures, such as Stonehenge, Gobekli Tepe and the Moai of Easter Island. These probably range from the blooming ridiculous, they were created by alien architects or the survivors of Atlantis, to the thoroughly mundane, they were built as places of worship or for some competitive hauling contest – “we can shift more earth and bigger stones than you”. In fact, most theories will probably fall into one of these two camps, an insult to your intelligence or a bullet through your curiosity.
You may also be of the opinion we can’t really know, with any clarity, what the purpose or origins of these sites were. That such knowledge has been lost to time, going extinct with the cultures that created it. Whilst I would agree that many of the details of these structures may forever escape us, thanks to a recent theory, the big picture is becoming clearer than many ever thought it would; and, for once, this theory is neither totally ridiculous nor terribly mundane! As well as shedding some light on Neolithic monuments, it could also bring into focus the origins of music, art, and performance.
The most stunning thing of all, is that such a rich, deep, tapestry of human creativity, which would take many volumes of encyclopaediae to explain in every detail, might also be summed up in a single word. Why did we build, sculpt, paint, sing and dance? Mnemonics. The art of remembering.
Ancient origins explained: Stonehenge, the Moai of Easter Island and Gobekli Tepe, prehistoric mnemonic devices.
(You can drop it now Hancock, cheers).
This is what’s proposed by Dr. Lynne Kelly, in her books Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: Orality, Memory and the Transmission of Culture and The Memory Code. After spending some time learning from Indigenous cultures in her native Australia, Dr. Kelly became confused when visiting Stonehenge, that the tour guide didn’t mention its possible use as a memory space. To her it seemed an obvious connection to make, knowing how the Indigenous Australians encoded so much information onto their environment in the form of ‘songlines‘. Routes through their territory, where stories, songs and dances are performed, to recall the ecology and history of the place. She saw many parallels between the the Neolithic structures that pop up all over the world, around the time the societies that built them started transitioning towards agriculture, and the mechanisms created by Indigenous Australians to retain knowledge over many generations. To her surprise, no one else had made this connection before.
After abandoning the PhD she had been working on to pursue her theory instead, Dr. Kelly explored archaeological sites all over the world, from Poverty Point on the Mississippi to Carnac in Brittany via the Nasca Lines in Peru, and she makes a very convincing case that all were created to help retain and transmit information in the days before writing. The myths, songs, dances and artwork that accompanied these places were memory aids and vital sources of knowledge. In a sense, they could be thought of as ancient technologies, as revolutionary in their time as the printing press was in the Middle Ages, or the internet is to us today. It’s a theory that provides many satisfactory answers, yet also raises some intriguing questions, about our evolution and the origins of our culture.
Aerial photos of Nasca by Diego Delso.
Poverty Point reconstructions by Herb Roe.
Panoramic of Carnac by David Kernow.
The Method of Loci
Some of you may have heard of the concept of a ‘memory palace’. I first came across the term in my early twenties when reading, British illusionist, Derren Brown’s book, Tricks of the Mind. A brilliant insight into the basic psychology and science behind things like hypnosis and psychic abilities (SPOILER ALERT: it’s humans being manipulative [shocker] not supernatural powers). The technique involves creating a map of a familiar physical space in your mind and attaching vivid images to places in that space. Images that have vital information encoded onto them. This is the same principle as the ‘method of loci‘, familiar to Ancient Greek and Roman orators, such as Cicero, who used it to remember speeches. It combines elements of spatial memory and visualisation, to aid in the efficient recall of information.
To illustrate how the method works, Brown explains how he uses it to remember all 39 Shakespeare plays. First you must pick a suitable place in which to build your palace. This should be somewhere of a reasonable size, with many locations, or landmarks, where you can encode information. It should also be somewhere you have little trouble recalling, meaning fictional places don’t work as well as real ones (as you have to put more effort into remembering them) and using somewhere like your old school is also a bad idea, as the details of it will fade from your memory. The best palaces will also be relevant to the information you want to remember, e.g. for Shakespeare plays the ideal place might be the Globe Theatre; however, this connection is not a necessity. The most important aspect of your memory palace is that it is familiar and easy to recall. Brown, therefore, chooses Cambridge Theatre in London’s West End, as he performs there regularly.
Once you have decided where your memory palace is, you must pick a route through that place and take note of the many ‘loci’ you encounter along the way. ‘Loci’ are familiar locations where you can start to encode information. If the memory palace is your current home, for example, loci might include the front door, the fridge, and the coat rack. Once you have this mental map of both the space and the loci, you can begin to encode information. Information is best remembered as over-the-top visual images, to which you have attached meaning. This is the key, linking unusual imagery to familiar places. If you were trying to encode Shakespeare plays into your home, you might imagine finding two lovers snogging behind the jackets in your coat rack to help you recall Romeo & Juliet. The more weird and wonderful the imagery, the easier it will be to remember.
When Brown explores his memory palace, he first walks into the entrance of the Cambridge Theatre, where he passes two finely dressed gentlemen on his left. Their unusual attire is attached to the familiar entrance and, as Brown chose the symbolism, it is easy for him to make the connection to the play (Two Gentlemen of Verona). As he walks up the stairs, he sees a schoolboy, carrying a paper with a lot of red crosses on it. They keep stepping in each other’s way and eventually they burst out laughing (A Comedy of Errors). At the top of the stairs is former British Prime Minister John Major, decked out in regalia and wearing a crown (King John). The specific imagery you use is unimportant, it just needs to be vivid and have a connection to the information you want to remember that is relevant to you.
So, how does this technique, still favoured by modern memory champions, relate to Stonehenge and other ancient monuments? Before we answer that question, we must take a step-back and examine the type of societies that existed before agriculture. These were mobile cultures (not nomadic*), who covered a large territory and moved between resource rich sites. The Australian Yanyuwa people still live this way and they use a similar, perhaps even more extensive, method than that of the loci for mapping their environment and everything that lives in it: the aforementioned songlines. These could be seen as physical memory palaces, etched onto the environment. The Yanyuwa walk well-known pathways through their territory, singing songs along the way and stopping at specific points to perform rituals**. These performance points work like loci, however, instead of just encoding an image, entire songs, stories and dances, themselves encoded with many layers of knowledge, are attached to the place.
For example, a bird might be mapped onto a rock along the songline. The bird will have a distinct character that is reflective of its behaviour, e.g. the laughing kookaburra, creating the visual stimulus attached to that place. The kookaburra will have its own song, which may have other information, such as its call, encoded into it. The song could take the form of a narrative, which adds more information about the bird and its practical uses, e.g. the time of day the kookaburra laughs, early dawn and dusk, make it a useful timekeeper (one of its nicknames is ‘the bushman’s clock’). As well as details about the kookaburra, information about other animals, tribal ethics and morals, or even the landscape, can be woven into these stories.
Myth, in this context, functions as a mnemonic. The vivid characters and events being much easier to recall than straight information. Art and sculpture are used to record events and enhance the visual stimulus associated with the place. Song’s rhythmic and melodic nature makes its content more memorable. I’d be willing to bet that you can recall more songs from your childhood than school lessons? Dance can help convey information that is difficult to express in words. The movements associated with ‘hunting magic’ rituals can demonstrate the subtle changes in ear position between a kangaroo that is aware of your presence and one that is not. Through this lens, such rituals appear less like mystical thinking, associated with activities such as prayer and sacrifice, and more like a careful training session or rehearsal.
By creating such strong visual, auditory, kinaesthetic and tactile associations to their knowledge, individuals within oral cultures, let alone the community as a whole, are able to recall vast quantities of information. The Yanyuwa have mapped over 800km of songlines through their territory, the Navajo have documented and classified 700 insect species and their practical uses, all Polynesian cultures keep complex oral histories stretching back many generations. In fact, every tribal elder will have a complete field guide of all the mammals, birds, herptiles, fish and plants in their environment; as well as an immense amount of genealogical, topographical and astronomical data, all stored within their memory. By keeping some of this knowledge restricted to only a few individuals in the group, information can also survive for many millennia. There are several stories, about known geological events, such as sea-level rises and volcanic eruptions, that have remained intact for 7,000 years or more.
Art as a historical record and memory aid.
Whilst I have long been aware of the brutal nature of colonialism, a whole other level of horror was revealed to me once I truly understood just how vital the landscape was to mobile cultures. Their entire knowledge system, their history, their science and even their legal codes, depended on their access to certain sites at certain times of year. Lovers of knowledge and culture often cite the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, or Baghdad’s House of Wisdom, as one of the most tragic events in our history. Every “rabbit-proof fence” or reservation boundary now represents a similar level of destruction to me. How many Houses of Knowledge were burned across the Americas, Africa, Australia and the Pacific in the name of Manifest Destiny or [insert European country]’s Empire? Hundreds? Thousands? It’s really not a pleasant thing to think about.
*Nomadic societies do not have fixed territorial boundaries, mobile societies do (although these can be vast). Mobile societies move between specific places at specific times of year. They also probably engage in some horticulture.
**A ritual, in this context, is just a repeated event. The word does not imply that spiritual beliefs are attached (although they may be).
Why Move a Monolith?
The Grand Menhir Brise was the largest single piece of stone moved by humans in Neolithic times. Around 4500 BCE, someone thought it would be a good idea to drag this 300+ tonne monolith 12.1 km (7.5 miles) and erect it alongside 18 other rocks, that ranged in size from ‘very big’ to ‘bloody enormous’, at Locmariaquer in Brittany, France. The manpower required to do this was phenomenal, 2000 people to move the stone, 3000 people to pull it upright. So why bother? What was there to gain in moving these huge menhirs*?
As difficult as it can be to reach so far into the past, we do have some clues to work with. The menhirs were quarried, despite loose stones being available in the environment; the chosen rocks were often covered in distinctive natural markings; motifs were carved into some of the rocks; and the construction work began just as the local people began to shift towards agriculture. No monuments appear before agriculture takes off in the region, within a few hundred years of it doing so, they’re everywhere. What does this tell us?
Well, it strongly suggests these rocks had a special significance. They were either from sacred sites or they served a practical purpose particularly well (or both). If we combine this information with our knowledge of songlines and the archaeological context, that all these sites emerge in the intermediary between humans living the mobile life and becoming sedentary creatures, things should start to fall into place. When your entire knowledge system, that is vital to your survival, is etched onto your vast territory, what do you do if you want to retain that knowledge but don’t need to walk so far to find food? You bring that knowledge to you. You carve out the important rocks, or trees, along your songlines, or you find some good replacements.
The smaller bluestones, at Stonehenge, were almost certainly brought from 250 km away in Wales because they have lots of natural patterning, making them great memory aids for encoding information; even if they had prior significance, it was probably for this reason. How long does it take you to start seeing familiar shapes in cloud formations if you look hard enough? Even less active imaginations will spot everything from dragons to ducks in minutes, especially if others are pointing them out as well. This phenomena, known as pareidolia, which is also the reason people see Jesus in toast, can be brilliantly useful for creating and encoding the visual stimulus necessary for an effective memory palace. The stones in these Neolithic formations have no uniform shape, all are distinct from those adjacent, and they are spaced apart so each can be approached and focused on in isolation. These are almost identical features to those both Cicero and Brown look for in their perfect memory space.
*Menhir is just a fancy French word for ‘megalith’, which is just a fancy English word for ‘big rock’.
If you’re seeing animals and faces in these rock formations, that’s pareidolia.
Filling in the Gaps
The most wonderful thing about Dr. Kelly’s theory is that it is entirely consistent with current archaeology and contradicts very few existing hypotheses. Quite the opposite, it seems to not only complement current thinking in evolution, neuroscience, mythology, anthropology and mnemonics, but pull many ideas from these fields together and fill in some gaps as well. We’ve known for a long time that several of these sites functioned as a calendar, due to certain features lining up with astronomical events, like the solstices. If Dr. Kelly’s theory is correct, then we would expect this. Keeping track of the calendar this way is only possible once you remain in a single spot; and former techniques, such as observing animal behaviour and the flowering of plants, will no longer be available to you once you have. Of course, one of the functions of any large mnemonic device would be to keep track of the yearly cycle, there just seems to be a bit more to it than that as well.
Bizarre decorative objects that are often found near Neolithic monuments, and hardly anywhere else, also start to make sense through this framework. Grooved ware pottery appears in high concentrations around British Neolithic sites but only sparsely elsewhere and nowhere outside the British Isles. Many of the pots and jars show signs of repair long after they had any use as a vessel. Patterned clay objects litter Poverty Point, yet have no discernible purpose. The mysterious Towie ball, and others like it, were distributed in close correlation with Scottish stone circles.
We know that other mobile societies, such as the Luba of Central Africa and Arrernte of Central Australia, use objects decorated with abstract art as personal memory aids (the lukasa and tjurunga, respectively), it seems possible these ancient artifacts served a similar purpose. Encoding on these devices takes on a more tactile nature, whilst retaining many visual elements. Grooves might represent the scales of a lizard or the coils of a snake, ridges and bumps could hold geographic knowledge of mountains and creeks, beads of specific colours and shapes may be encoded with birds that have similar qualities.
Even the layout and ditches in the Stonehenge complex are brought into focus. We know that oral cultures have different levels of initiation, where different types of knowledge is shared and different rituals performed; and that specific information is often retained by specific individuals or sub-groups. In the Haudenosaunee, men and women keep separate oral histories, for example. This knowledge is highly guarded, only released to those with the right level of initiation, and delivered in a ritualistic nature. If it weren’t, it would suffer from distortion and the knowledge would become corrupted. If they didn’t take these precautions, they wouldn’t have survived. Valuable knowledge, like stories about how your ancestors got through the worst drought in a century, would be lost to gossip and Chinese whispers. (I feel like there’s a lesson in there somewhere about guarding against the dangers of misinformation…). To keep this knowledge secure, and our observations consistent with that of mobile cultures, private, as well as public, performance spaces would have to be present at Stonehenge; and this is exactly what the ditches provide us with.
The labour required to create the ditches is possibly as impressive as the hauling of stones. Millions of man hours spent digging up to 10 metres deep in the chalk, using only deer antlers. Although this was done in stages, over many centuries, it’s still a hell of a lot of work that, until now, seemed to be for little reward. The ditches are not continuous, as land bridges still provide access to the monuments, so they weren’t used for defence. This is further supported by their meticulously maintained flat-bottoms, defence ditches are usually v-shaped or left uneven. Then there’s the irregular depths and widths of different sections of each trench. This has varying impacts on the acoustics, amplifying sound in larger, possibly public, spaces and containing it in smaller, private, ones. This kind of soundscaping can also be seen in the performance spaces of the Pueblo, from Chaco Canyon, NM, known as kivas.
Clearer Past, Brighter Future?
All of these examples and we’ve barely even scratched the surface of how this theory can help us understand the archaeology of a single megalithic complex. However, as I’ve touched on, the implications go much further than that as well. What can we learn about other Neolithic sites? Or mobile cultures? How does this relate to the evolution of religion? The arts? Or pareidolia? What information have we been missing in myths? Should we apply these systems of learning and knowledge retention to our education systems? What benefits might this provide?
I’ve decided to continue pursuing some of these questions in my writing. Over the coming weeks, I will be dedicating several articles to orality, the alternative to literacy that mobile people use, and the cultures that practice it. We will examine the structure of oral knowledge systems in more detail, the specifics of Dr. Kelly’s theory, and explore our history before we started writing things down.
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Do Your Own Damn Research!
Dr. Kelly was kind enough to talk to me and answer some questions I had when writing this article. So not only is she brilliant, she’s lovely as well. If you have found this article interesting, I highly recommend you read her books:
Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: Orality, Memory and the Transmission of Culture (This book is an academic text and a real ‘deep dive’ into the evidence behind Dr. Kelly’s theory).
The Memory Code (This book covers the same ground as Knowledge and Power but is written for the general public).
Memory Craft (New release. Explores the practical applications of these techniques in our personal lives and education).
Bibliography available on Dr. Kelly’s website: http://www.lynnekelly.com.au/bibliography-the-memory-code/
Books about memory palaces:
Tricks of the Mind by Derren Brown
De Oratore by Cicero
Lectures and podcasts featuring Dr. Kelly:
This content was originally published here.