What came first, language or the story? The logical sequence is, supposedly, that language came first. Humans emerged from the primeval swamp, and our evolutionary ancestors, developed handy attributes like walking upright and the opposable thumb, began talking to each other and then, a few hundred thousand years later, told stories to each other around the camp fire for entertainment.
Research in the field of evolutionary anthropology seems to indicate, however, that it may have happened the other way around: that our need to tell a story to others preceded the ability to tell it. Storytelling caused language, not the other way around. According to a 2016 academic article:
“In storytelling nestle the properties that have allowed humans to develop a very different kind of communication from that used by other animals … Narrative abilities precede language.”
The earliest stories probably concerned the need to warn someone of, say, a part of the forest where you were most likely to be attacked by bears. By definition, those who survived this hazard were those who were around to tell the tale of how they escaped, perhaps somewhat embellished (whether the capacity to lie is as old as the capacity to relate stories is, I suspect, not covered by the research).
I am obviously not in a position to confirm or challenge such scientific conclusions; but the finding is intuitive. It fits with the experience of all of us who earn our living by the ability to tell a story. To this day, most storytelling hinges on the degree of peril our main protagonist faces (threatening gangsters, wrongful conviction, marrying the Wrong Person) and whether she or he has the courage, resilience and good fortune to escape.
This explains why a thriller, an account of a miscarriage of justice and a romantic comedy are examples of stories with strong potential to hold a reader’s attention. Superficially they are quite distinct, but at their core there is a visceral similarity, and a common link with the first tales shared among human communities.
The implication is: we cannot not think in stories. We are a narrative species. If something momentous has happened to us, and we survived, our first thought is: Phew. Our second thought is: I’ve got to tell someone. For the biggest stories that means a book, and if you don’t know how to go about this, you contact a ghostwriter.
- Philip Whiteley is an author and ghostwriter, who pens fiction under the byline PJ Whiteley. There is more information at www.pjwhiteley.com