A book by Lynne Kelly. Published 2016.
An Australian teacher and writer, with a solid career writing science books for schools, Kelly embarked on her PhD with the intention of studying how indigenous people in non-literate societies - in particular, Australian indigenous people - remembered information about local native species, and what kind of information they remembered. After many years of interest, and a few years of study, she took a break and went on holiday with her husband. While at Stonehenge, she realised that Stonehenge strongly resembled the memory spaces used by non-literate people in the process of moving from a nomadic to a sedentary lifestyle. She looked for more information, and couldn't find anything. On returning home, she changed the focus of her PhD to looking at memory spaces, and to consider ancient monuments such as stone circles in Europe and the Nazca Lines, those huge drawings on the ground in South America. Kelly used her PhD as the basis for this book, which is intended for general readers with no specialist knowledge.
Indigenous societies in Australia had very little in the way of writing. In some parts of the country there are clear meanings associated with various symbols presented in art, but the symbols are not presented in a linear 'writing' fashion, rather as 'art' that acts as a memory aid to assist in remembering and interpreting stories. So Australia's indigenous cultures were non-literate, meaning they had to remember everything: their laws, history, customs, trade treaties, family trees, agricultural and environmental knowledge. This is the sort of thing Kelly started out studying, and she has a blog where she details her experiments using different memory techniques drawn from all over the world.
One of the very interesting ways indigenous Australians remember important stuff is in 'songlines'. This refers to a way of using physical locations and tying them to particular stories. In Kelly's experimetal version, she has used her daily walk around the block to help remember a history of the world. At various locations on her walk - the front door, the mailbox, the bush in front of the neighbour's house, etc. - she repeats a certain story about a part of world history. Each time she walks, she creates new stories to remember new information in new locations, and repeats the stories that are already 'encoded'. By associating the stories with particular locations, it helps her remember them.
As well as this, to access certain information, all she needs to do is picture herself walking to the right location. Now she doesn't need to go on the physical walk, she can also mentally take herself on that walk, repeating her stories or accessing particular stories.
If you think about an indigenous group doing this, it would also help them remember how to travel from one place to another: by telling the stories in order, you reinforce your memory of the path you took. You can use the stories to record information about each location, as well as other information - maybe about your laws, or your history - at the same time. In this way, by passing the stories - songlines - through the generations, we know that indigenous Australians who have learnt these songlines can do amazing things, like navigate across thousands of kilometres of desert without running out of water even though they've never personally travelled that way before - or find sources of food and water during the worst drought in hundreds of years, because their ancestors put that information into the songlines, and it has been passed on and preserved.
We also know that in some parts of Australia - especially a few parts of the south-east - indigenous people did not live a very nomadic lifestyle. They had established a more sedentary way of life, often based around year-round food sources like fish weirs in the Murray river, along with crops of food plants that can be tended and used long-term. Kelly was very interested in how people adapted their songlines - their location-based memory aids - to a more sedentary lifestyle. Looking at non-literate societies in Australia, South America and Africa, she found that a common technique is to create a smaller, more local 'memory space' that acts as a songline in miniature.
So there she is, gazing upon the big awkward and unmatched rocks of Stonehenge, thinking to herself that surely it is obvious: Stonehenge is one of these memory spaces, built by people who were making the transition from nomadic hunter/gatherers to sedentary herders and farmers. They were still non-literate, so to preserve their knowledge systems they obviously needed to create an alternative to the old songlines, and a stone circle would make a great memory space.
So Kelly started to look critically at some of these ancient monuments, asking questions: IF this is a memory space, WHAT kind of characteristics would it have? What do we know about non-literate cultures today, and how they use memory spaces? What are the patterns we see in non-literate cultures who have adopted a more sedentary lifestyle? What would I NOT see in a memory space?
Information as Power
One of the parts I found particularly intriguing is Kelly's exploration of what knowledge means to a non-literate society, and how that knowledge is shared or hidden. My instinct - and no doubt yours too, if you are a citizen of the internet - is that if you need to remember something, and you can't write it down, you will want to have the knowledge shared as widely as possible to ensure maximum retention. But Kelly points out that if you want to be sure that particular knowledge is retained accurately then you will do the opposite: the most important knowledge will be protected and restricted, with much stronger 'quality control' measures undertaken to ensure that mistakes do not creep in. That is why non-literate cultures often place a strong value on having information restricted to those who have proven themselves. This ties into concepts like initiations: the idea that to share in certain privileged information, you must first undergo certain tests. At each level, access to more privileged and important information is only granted after more and more difficult tests - proving that you are able to be trusted with information that absolutely must not be corrupted.
Suddenly it makes a lot more sense that, for example, there is so much knowledge that indigenous Australians are reluctant to share with even the un-proven members of their own group, never mind outsiders. In this non-literate world, knowledge is truly power: you can be the fastest, the strongest, the most cunning, but you won't have power without knowledge. Kelly describes many memory spaces that have smaller and less accessible areas that are for the really privileged, while the more accessible spaces are able to cater to the whole community.
In this book - being the one aimed at general readers - Kelly includes a lot of detail about different ways that non-literate people around the world encode and remember information, including the progress of her many experiments in using these techniques. She also describes something of the effect of using these memory techniques: for example, how information 'encoded' in particular ways will take on the characteristics of stories, and will often - without her meaning to - end up resembling the myths and legends of pre-literate societies. She also describes how she ends up seeing connections and patterns that were not obvious before, say in her understanding of world history, because she is recording and accessing the information differently to when she was using 'literate' techniques to learn and remember the same information.
Kelly has done some fascinating things, like use an African-style memory board covered in shells, beads and bits-n-pieces to help her memorise the name, habitat, behaviour etc. of every single bird species native to Victoria (150-odd species). She has carved random markings on a verandah post at her home as a memory aid, and is trying out fringes of knotted strings as used by people in South America. Some of this is in her book, explained in detail; and a lot is also on her blog, which is well worth checking out.
In trialling these memory techniques, Kelly is demonstrating how easily even a complete beginner - someone who was brought up in a purely literate culture, and has no experience of using non-literate memory techniques - can learn huge amounts of information. In this way she is also showing how much we literate people underestimate the breadth and depth of knowledge available in non-literate cultures.
Who Should Read This?
Honestly, this book has shifted my perspective on the world more than most books ever could. In terms of rewriting my personal history of the world, it's up there with Guns, Germs and Steel. As a white westerner, it has had a huge impact on my understanding of present day non-literate (or recently-literate) societies, so that's worth a lot. It's also an absolutely fascinating read, and in this general reader version Kelly really takes the reader along on her journey, and shares her passion and excitement. A few (Australian) indigenous friends I've given it to already know a lot more than me about non-literate knowledge systems, but have still learnt a lot and really appreciated a book that shows the sophistication and complexity of their knowledge systems to outsiders.
It is a straightforward and enjoyable read, although it is aimed firmly at an adult audience able to absorb large amounts of information and complex ideas. This is a book that will be of interest to anybody who likes to read about indigenous knowledge systems, Australian culture and history, African and South American societies, ancient European societies, science, memory, art, intelligence, discoveries, mysteries, ancient architecture, birds, biographies, self improvement...
...basically, I strongly recommend this book to people who are alive and can read. Go on, change the world by changing your mind. You'll love it.