How Conversations Around Campfire Might Have Shaped Human Cognition And Culture

We can perhaps thank campfire story time for getting us where we are today

Photo: Frans Lanting/Corbis

Most adults today spend the daylight hours at work; nighttime is for cutting loose over drinks and food and sharing stories and strengthening relationships. Our ancient ancestors probably weren’t so different.

According to new research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, ending the day around the campfire, where songs, stories and relationships blossomed, ultimately shaped cultures and perhaps even helped develop some of our ability to understand one another, cooperate and internalize culture.

Anthropologist Polly Wiessner arrived at these conclusions after spending 174 days living with the Ju/’hoan (!Kung) Bushmen of Botswana and Namibia. Weissner recorded conversations during the day and at night, and then compared the content of those exchanges. Three-quarters of daytime conversation, Weissner found, centered around work-related talk or gossip. At night, however, more than 80 percent of conversations centered around singing, dancing, spirituality or “enthralling stories, often about known people,” including tales about “the exploits of distant kin, adventures in towns, local politics, truck stories, elephant stories, or experiences in trance.”

Weissner describes that fireside setting today, as experienced with the Ju/’hoan and likely representative of previous generations:

Fireside gatherings are often, although not always, composed of people of mixed sexes and ages. The moon and starlit skies awaken imagination of the supernatural, as well as a sense of vulnerability to malevolent spirits, predators, and antagonists countered by security in numbers.  Body language is dimmed by firelight and awareness of self and others is reduced. Facial expressions—flickering with the flames—are either softened, or in the case of fear or anguish, accentuated. Agendas of the day are dropped while small children fall asleep in the laps of kin. Whereas time structures interactions by day because of economic exigencies, by night social interactions structure time and often continue until relationships are right. Foragers make use of daytime efficiently and nighttime effectively.

Such regular interactions, Weissner continues, date back at least 400,000 years. It could be that these repeated interactions shaped entire cultures and gave us our aptitude for stories and song. The significance of the time our ancestors’ spent by the fire manifests in a more obvious way as well. As Weissner writes, “Appetites for firelit settings for intimate conversations and for evening stories remain with us today.” 

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