A study of hunter-gatherer tribes showed that storytellers were highly valued and rewarded with rice.

Danish journalist, author and teacher Line Vaaben uses bags of rice and inspirational quotes to remind other storytellers about the value of their work.

Once upon a time, the sun and the moon — the man and the woman — had a quarrel over who was the strongest of the two, and whether one or the other should carry out the important task of lighting up the sky. After a fierce fight they discovered that they were equal in strength. Therefore, they decided to share the work, so that the sun would be lighting up the sky during the day and the moon at night. And thus the celestial bodies were in harmony.

This story is told among the Agta people, a hunter-gatherer community thought to be one of the earliest inhabitants of the Philippines. But many will recognize the structure from a variety of animal fables in books or films: a simple story that sets the rules for interpersonal relationships and conveys social norms and moral. The story is one of four, which a group of anthropologists from University College London were told during a field study among the Agtas. Other stories had titles like “The Wild Pig and the Seacow,” “The Monkey and the Giant,” and “The Winged Ant.”

Actually the anthropologists had no intention at all of researching storytelling. They set out to investigate the value the Agta people gave to various members of their tribal communities: How they valued the best hunters, the best gatherers and the strongest fishermen. But they also asked them to evaluate the tribe’s storytellers — a less significant test group. Or so they thought.

Nearly 300 Agta from 18 separate camps were told to play a resource allocation game, where players were given a number of tokens representing rice and asked to distribute these between themselves and their camp mates.

Much to the anthropologists’ surprise, the storytellers were valued above all other professions. Although they did not contribute directly to the tribe’s survival, they were awarded more rice than any other members — even above the best hunters. They also were more popular with the opposite sex and had more children than average among tribal families.

The question is, why would individuals invest so much time and energy in becoming a skilled storyteller, and why would that “work” be given such a value by others? From an evolutionary standpoint, the many hours spent listening to and telling stories would seem time better spent foraging, reproducing or simply doing nothing, which at least would save energy.

The researchers, who published their results in 2018, concluded that the storytellers’ were held in high esteem because they contributed to an understanding of the group’s social interaction and reinforced the norms and ethics of the tribe. They conveyed messages and rules on cooperation, social equality and gender roles. The story about the sun and the moon for instance, promotes cooperation between the sexes. In fact, the researchers found that overall levels of cooperation were higher in camps with a greater proportion of skilled storytellers.

All which suggests that storytelling may perform a beneficial group-level function: The better the stories were told, the better the tribe worked.

Can the same value translate to journalistic storytelling?

I stumbled over this study last year, doing research for a textbook about narrative journalism, and I was thrilled — both as a researcher and a storyteller. I mean, who doesn’t want more rice and more attention from the opposite sex?

But what also intrigued me was the evidence of the function and evolution of storytelling. Stories are everywhere, but what do they actually do to us? Not only individually and emotionally, but in how we function as societies.

I got in touch with Dr. Daniel Smith at Population Health Sciences at the University of Bristol, and asked him whether he thought that his findings also could apply to storytelling in journalism. He stressed that he was no expert in journalism, as his focus is on stories told by small scale societies and their evolutionary and anthropological function. But as we talked, he agreed there are definite parallels.

“All societies in the world tell stories, so there does seem to be some in-built bias that humans have towards paying attention to stories,” Smith said. “However, there’s not a lot of agreement in evolutionary circles over why we enjoy listening to and telling stories. Our results suggest that the content of stories may perform a group-beneficial function in terms of coordinating behavior, so perhaps this could be one reason we’re such storytelling animals and pay attention to narratives in journalism.”

However, the function of storytelling is still debated within Smith’s world: “There is no doubt that people love a good story. But in evolutionary circles, there is no consensus as to why.”

He cautioned that while narratives in traditional hunter-gatherer societies help coordinate behavior, it is not certain that result can easily be transferred to the rest of the world.

I pressed a bit to probe whether narrative journalism can play a productive role in modern society. Plausible, he said.

“Narrative journalism and journalism more broadly can certainly galvanize movements and influence peoples’ behavior,” he said. “Just think of Trump and Brexit. But whether this can promote cooperation in the same way that Agta stories can is more unclear.”

The need to understand more about stories in modern “stratified” societies

Hunter-gatherer stories seem to be for the good of society — probably because these societies are, at core, highly egalitarian without many large distinctions in terms of wealth or power. In order to be listened to, the skilled storytellers must promote ethics of cooperation and equality in their stories, or else they would simply be ignored.

“However, in stratified societies those in power get to control the stories and individuals are less able to ignore or move away from them,” Smith told me. “So the stories they tell can be more self-serving, rather than benefiting everyone.”

And he also noted that there’s a wing of scientists who believe that narratives have no particular function. They argue that we love them simply because they are structured in a way that manipulates our cognitive and emotional functions. They catch our attention, but have no higher purpose. According to that school of thought, stories aren’t valued for any adaptive reason, but because they “are structured hi-jack our cognitive and motivational machinery — kind of like how click-bait operates by having the most attention-grabbing headlines.” Cognitive scientist Steve Pinker of Harvard has referred to some music as “evolutionary cheesecake” — something delicious we developed because it meets some of our innate needs.

Smith wonders if the same could be the case for storytelling. But he thinks the truth might lie between the two schools of thought. He is seeking funding for more research to into understanding why humans tell stories and how this behavior evolved. He wants to dig into why we use stories to transmit information, whether it can shape behavior and whether evolutionary theory can explain cross-cultural variation in narratives.

Rice bags as reminders of value

This is all heady intellectual stuff, and important to think about. If we want our work as professional storytellers to matter, we best understand how and why it works.

Danish journalist Line Vaaben

Journalist, author and teacher Line Vaaben

But I kept getting tugged back to that image from the study, about how the Agta expressed their value for each other with tokens that could be exchanged for rice. I imagined grains of rice piling up in front of a particularly skilled storyteller.

And it came to mind how we often describe storytellers as members of a worldwide tribe. Like the Agta people, we are hunters and gatherers. We may not hunt for game or cast for fish or bring in a harvest of grain to feed the tribe. But we do hunt for and gather information and details, then turn them into coherent, engaging stories that we can pass on to others, hoping they will provide some kind of understanding of themselves, other humans beings or the world we share. We are providing sustenance of a kind, and bear a huge responsibility to do it ethically and with a constructive purpose.

In 2019, to conclude my fellowship at the University of Southern Denmark, I hosted a conference on the importance of narrative. In my presentation, I told the story about the Agtas. And during the coffee break, I served slices of “evolutionary cheesecake.” At the end of the day, all the participants were given a small bag of rice, each tied with a quote about storytelling from some of my favorite writers. I encouraged them to pass it on to another storyteller as an appreciation or to take it home as a reminder of the importance — and sex appeal — of their work.

About the Agta

Agta are hunter-gatherers who live in small tribes in the dense rainforest in Luzon, Philippines. They hunt wild pig, deer and monkey with bows and arrows, catch fish with spears and forage honey and wild fruit. And on top of that, they tell stories.

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