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Campfire Stories Helped Human Culture Evolve: Study

Sep 23, 2014 02:42 PM EDT

While today sitting around a campfire, roasting s'mores is just seen as good fun, a new study shows that 400,000 to one million years ago, these types of gatherings actually helped human culture evolve.

All those years ago, the flames not only let them cook food and fend off predators, but also extended their day. Stories told over the firelight reinforced social traditions, promoted harmony and equality, as well as sparked humans' imagination to envision a broad sense of community, both with distant people and the spirit world, according to the study.

"There is something about fire in the middle of the darkness that bonds, mellows and also excites people. It's intimate," anthropology professor Polly Wiessner from the University of Utah said in a statement. "Nighttime around a fire is universally time for bonding, for telling social information, for entertaining, for a lot of shared emotions."

The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Wiessner and her team analyzed scores of daytime and firelight conversations among !Kung Bushmen, a group of 4,000 indigenous people who live in the Kalahari Desert of northeast Namibia and northwest Botswana. While studying their after dark activities isn't necessarily a window into our past, these people are hunter-gatherers, and for 99 percent of our existence this was the lifestyle of humans. According to Weissner, the Bushmen are the best example of how "firelit space contributes to human life."

Kung Bushmen, usually in groups of up to 15 people, gather round for campfires most nights, talking about everything from past hunts, fights over meat, marriage, premarital customs, and bush fires, to birth, getting lost, being chased by animals, disputes, and traditional myths.

In the 1970s and from 2011-2013, Wiessner observed 174 daytime and nighttime conversations and 68 firelight stories, relying on her notes and translated digital recordings for her analysis. She found that the difference in dialog was literally day and night. Of daytime conversations, 34 percent were complaints, criticism and gossip to regulate social relationships; 31 percent were economic matters, such as hunting for dinner; 16 percent were jokes; only six percent were stories and the rest were other topics

But at night, 81 percent of the conversations involved stories, and only seven percent were complaints, criticism and gossip and four percent were economic.

"At night, people really let go, mellow out and seek entertainment," Weissner explained.

This kind of bonding bolstered the human imagination and allowed people to connect in a unique way that has become a part of our evolution as beings.

So maybe instead of sitting on your laptop at night being lit by artificial light, dump the electronics for some good old fashioned talking around a warm campfire.

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