"Food for Thought: The Role of Narrative in Human Subsistence"

Scalise Sugiyama


In previous papers, I have proposed that narrative emerged in human prehistory as a kind of virtual reality: by simulating the human environment, it enables us to acquire information useful to survival and reproduction without undertaking the costs and risks of first-hand experience. Two classes of information integral to the pursuit of fitness are subsistence and social information. If narrative is indeed a means of storing and transmitting such knowledge, we would expect the stories of our Pleistocene ancestors to be brimming with it. Unfortunately, they left no records for us to examine. A facsimile is at hand, however: the oral traditions of modern foragers, whose living conditions approximate those which produced the homo sapiens mind. This paper presents the results of a survey of story collections from four geographically and culturally distinct foraging societies: the Apache, Crow, Selknam, and Yanomamo. Approximately 600 stories were analyzed for subsistence information content (social information content will be analyzed in a companion study). Results suggest that, indeed, hunter-gatherers use narrative as a conduit of subsistence-related information.


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