Grounded: Indigenous Knowing in a Concrete Reality

Lynne Kelly

Rounded Globe


I Indigenous knowledge in a concrete reality

Indigenous cultures are too often represented as if they live in a fog of superstition. In B-grade movies and far too many documentaries, so called ‘primitive’ people are shown performing nebulous rituals to their gods. They are apparently afraid of thunder because they don’t have an explanation for it and perform all sorts of sacrifices to appease the deities. The reality is very different. This essay will demonstrate that the rituals of indigenous cultures are grounded in reasoned practices. It will demonstrate their ability to retain, maintain and communicate the complexity of their physical and cultural domains.1

This essay will also argue that we need to go beyond respecting indigenous cultures to recognizing how much we can learn from them. We can add to Western education practices by grounding our contemporary learning in knowledge structures, fixed by physical locations and enhanced by integrating song, dance and vivid imagination with the way we encode information right across the knowledge domains.

The misconception that we have little to gain from indigenous intellectual achievements arises from the fact that we who use literacy to store information have not grasped that there is an alternative: orality. We often read that non-literate cultures left no written records. Culture is built around what you do have, not what you don’t. Cultures which have no contact whatsoever with writing, referred to as primary oral cultures, have developed a suite of mnemonic technologies in order to memorise the learning built up over the millennia.

In order to grasp a totally different way of knowing it is necessary first to appreciate just what is known. Then, and only then, can we look at the power associated with the control of knowledge. Ceremonies can then be explored as pragmatic gatherings which serve to ensure that knowledge is retained accurately and transmitted appropriately. Having grasped the complexity of the pragmatic intellectual lives of indigenous elders, we can then explore the extraordinary memory systems they use to maintain an encyclopaedic knowledge of their physical environment and cultural obligations. Indigenous cultures must live in a concrete reality or they simply wouldn’t survive.

Everybody gains new memories all day every day. Most are lost. A few are retained for life. Those memories come naturally. That is not what this essay is about. Some memories are deliberately encoded, formally memorized as a result of a deliberate effort to do so. It is those memories which create an indigenous oral tradition.

Sociologist Carl Couch writes:

In all societies the bulk of the information used to organize conduct has been accumulated and preserved by prior generations. Communication is the core process of all human societies. Consequently a comprehensive theory of social life must attend to how information is accumulated, preserved and shared.2

Cultures without writing accumulate and preserve information in human memory, and share it directly from memory. We know a great deal about pre-literate Greek society as the culture became literate and documented their transition. Ancient Greeks differentiated between natural memory and what they referred to as artificial memory. The latter is a trained memory, an asset greatly admired in pre-literate and early literate society. Not surprisingly, all non-literate cultures train their memories. Their very survival depended on them doing so.

When discussing oral tradition, the majority of scholars will talk about history and religion as if these are the key components which combine to create the indigenous knowledge bank. Consequently, we focus on the major areas of difference between us and them. However, it is our commonalities which form the significant proportion of our knowledge, where ‘our’ refers to all societies, all humans, whether oral or literate. Our knowledge of fauna and flora, astronomy and geology, seasons, weather, human behaviour, of navigation and obligation, of birth and of death are genres which captivate us all. Obsidian is black, shiny and sharp, corn cross-pollinates and bones break whether you use oral or literate technologies to store that information. It is the way that information is accumulated, preserved and shared which is the significant difference.

It is important at this stage to clarify some terms. In this essay, the term ‘pre-literate’ is restricted to the few societies that went on to develop their own script, unlike most societies which became literate through adopting a script introduced by the spread of a different culture. Non-literate or oral societies are those which have no contact with writing. People who are illiterate are those who do not read despite living in a society which has writing. These differences are hugely significant when considering the natures and roles of power structures and knowledgeable elites. In non-literate societies, the elders are also non-literate and use mnemonic technologies to maintain both information system and their power. Those who are illiterate will almost certainly live in societies in which the power and knowledge base is controlled by literates.

The study of non-literate societies will be influenced by the proximity of literacy. For example the influence of Islamic literature on many Southeast Asian and African cultures indicates that they are further from a primary oral state than Australian cultures with a more recent contact date. It is only a century ago that Sigmund Freud wrote: ‘I shall select as the basis of this comparison the tribes which have been described by anthropologists as the most backward and miserable of savages, the aborigines of Australia’.3 It is those very Australian Aboriginal cultures, of which there are hundreds, which have inspired me to understand the mechanisms by which they can memorise a vast store of practical knowledge. All contemporary anthropologists consider Aboriginal people as having the same intellectual potential, physiology and memory ability as has been typical of all humans for millennia. It is imperative that we look beyond superficial differences and celebrate our similarities.

Australian Aboriginal songlines and the method of loci

The way indigenous cultures across the world use the landscape to order, structure and ground their knowledge systems can be best understood through the Australian experience, as Australian indigenous cultures have a continuous record dating back at least 50,000 years. Significantly, some populations in the remote areas of Arnhem Land and around the Gulf of Carpentaria were not colonised until relatively recently so there are still a few elders who were fully initiated in the traditional systems. In talking about Australian Aboriginal cultures, the English terms ‘Dreaming’ and ‘songlines’ are frequently used. ‘The Dreaming’ or ‘Dreamtime’ is described in Aboriginal terms as ‘a way of talking, of seeing, of knowing…’4 Critically, knowledge and law are by far the most common terms I have heard Indigenous Australians use when talking about the Dreaming.

Songlines are sung pathways through the landscape. Australian Aboriginal people talk of ‘Country’, reflecting that their environment is far more than just a physical landscape. As popularized through Bruce Chatwin’s influential book, The Songlines,5 singing these sets of ordered locations enables Aboriginal people to navigate through forest, deserts and open plains. They are able to teach each other these singing tracks and hence, collectively, navigate the entire continent. Zoologist Sue Churchill described her experience of travelling with Aboriginal men who were navigating by songline in 1983. She was searching for cave-dwelling ghost bats.

We travelled with different old men from different communities in an old Landcruiser. There were no maps and most of the caves had not been visited for many years. One involved a 100-km drive cross-country through sand dunes to a cave that couldn’t be seen if you stood more than 3 m from its small vertical entrance. The old men who guided us were navigating by the shape of the sand dunes. They would stop every now and then and sing a long song to help them remember the landmarks of the journey. At each new locality the old men would try to tell us (there were some serious language barriers) the Dreamtime story of the ghost bat, or explain the ring of standing stones near a cave mouth, and sing the songs that they learned as young men. They even pointed out the woman in the story, a large rock on one of the ridges above a cave.6

In discussions of Chatwin’s book, my Aboriginal colleagues have reiterated the disappointment many felt that the complexity of the concept of songlines was not conveyed. At every location along a songline, a ritual is performed. ‘Ritual’ is too often a nebulous term used to refer to any kind of sacred act. In this essay, I am using the term ‘ritual’ as defined by anthropologist Roy Rappaport, that is, ritual is ‘a relatively invariant and formal sequence of acts and utterances not encoded by the performers’.7 Rituals in oral cultures must be considered in terms of the culture in which they are performed. They should not be likened to rituals in literate religions, where the pragmatic aspect of the performance is of secondary importance, if it exists at all. It is naïve to try and find an equivalence between the role of ritual in non-literate and literate cultures. Such an equivalence does not exist.

For the discussion in this essay, rituals are considered in terms of their efficacy in encoding practical information including navigation, animal behaviour, plant properties, cultural expectations and interactions, environments and resources and so on. In Australia there are over 300 language groups and it is estimated there were probably around 800 dialects before colonisation. Consequently it is important to be culturally specific whenever possible.

The Australian Yanyuwa people refer to their songlines as kujika. In a superbly comprehensive book on the topic, Singing saltwater country: journey to the songlines of Carpentaria,8 anthropologist John Bradley describes how through kujika every detail of the land is described and stored in the sung narratives. He has mapped over 800 km of songlines in his three decade long association with the Yanyuwa. As will be described below, indigenous knowledge exists in both public and restricted forms. Bradley wrote that ‘the public kujika is a thick description – a very detailed vision of the country – its geography and the plant, animal species, phenomena and objects one might encounter in it’.9 The following extract from the Rrumburriyi Tiger Shark’s kujika shows the way in which a songline acts as a set of subheadings to the songs associated with each location along the path and the information which will be sung, repeated, ritualised at that location.

We sing this spring waters there in the north and we come ashore at Yulbarra. We come ashore and we sing the people at Yulbarra. We sing the paperbarks swamp and then onwards and northwards we sing the messmate trees and then we climb up onto the stone-ridge country and we sing the cabbage palms, and then we come to that place called Rruwaliyarra and we are singing the blue-tongued lizards and then the spotted nightjar, the quoll and the death adder, and we sing that one remains alone – the rock wallaby – we are singing her, and then we sing the messmate trees.10

Bradley described another Yanyuwa singing track which embedded in the named landscape knowledge of people, winds, seasonal events, objects, the correct way to hunt and forage, process food and make tools, along with various groups’ rights to the land. When they arrived at the quarry site, the elder, who had last travelled there over fifty years before, sung verses that explained a particular stone tool technology. Although the technology had not been used for 100 years, the songs matched the flakes scattered at the site.11

Australian anthropologist Howard Morphy wrote that the ‘landscape created by mythological actions is the ultimate medium for encoding mythological events and does so almost by definition through ordering them in space’.12 Not surprisingly, the same memory technique is documented for a wide variety of cultures around the world. For example, American Indian, Donald Fixico describes the sacred landscape sites as ‘touchstones for memory’.13 Belgian anthropologist Jan Vansina worked with African cultures and explained that the African ‘landscape, changed by man or not, was often a powerful mnemonic device’.14 There can be no more reliable way of grounding information, of ordering and indexing a knowledge system, than using the landscape itself. It is not surprising, therefore, to find the linking of oral tradition to rocks, streams, rivers, lakes, hills, cliffs, trees and other natural features a characteristic of oral cultures universally. It is also not surprising that this powerful memory method can be found right through human history.

The Dreaming tracks represent a cognitive technology very similar to the method of loci, so well known from ancient Greek resources. The ‘method of loci’ is described in detail in Frances Yates’s seminal text, The Art Of Memory.15 Ancient Greek orators mentally placed each section of their performance in a specific location within a streetscape or building. When delivering their oration, they would simply imagine themselves walking the street or ambling around the building withdrawing each item to be presented in order. No item would be lost and the sequence would usually be preserved. Sixth and fifth-century Greek bards, for example, could recite all 16,000 verses of the Iliad from memory, which would have required a number of evenings for the full performance. Eight times world memory champion, Dominic O’Brien,16 developed a version of the method of loci independently and still uses what he calls ‘the journey method’ as he has found nothing better. I find his description of mentally travelling the set of locations as a journey by far the most apt for the way I experience this method, having myself now it used extensively for number of years.

A great deal of our understanding of the methods used by the ancient Greeks and adopted by the Romans comes from an anonymous Latin textbook for orators, Rhetorica ad Herennium (circa 86-82 BC). The textbook recommends that the set of locations use should be in a fixed sequence, away from the distractions of daily life, well lit, differing from each other, of moderate size and with a moderate distance between them.

The method of loci was widely used in schools from classical times right through the Middle Ages and even into the Renaissance, changing form and slowly fading as the dominance of writing grew. In Western societies and indigenous cultures alike, the use of this spatial memory technique was not purely for oratory but to memorise all forms of information which could be structured. Stories are far easier to remember then lists of facts. Narratives and vivid characters enacting the knowledge increase the chance that it will be remembered. Structuring information in such a concrete way also allows for commentary and recognizing patterns and stimulating questions in a way that many contemporary educational methods have lost.

The Rhetorica ad Herennium advises its orators that to make information most memorable, mental images should be as striking as possible with vibrant active characters displaying exceptional beauty or singular ugliness. They should be engaged in striking or comic effects involving heroes and trauma, disasters and great feats. These characteristics also fit the active and highly emotive myths found throughout the world’s indigenous cultures, enriched with exaggerated characters and monstrous creatures, part human part beast, which make the story much easier to remember.17 Although to claim that this is the sole purpose of mythology would be clearly naïve, there is no doubt that mythology greatly aids the memory of more mundane information.

Too often, the transmission of learning in traditional societies is depicted as occurring while out on the daily gather and hunt or through child-like stories told around the campfire. In reality, the vast store of oral tradition is formally taught. It is committed to memory, practiced, repeated, performed and stored in the only databank available: human memory.

Integration of spiritual and pragmatic domains

Knowledge within oral cultures is held within an integrated information system. Mythological stories encode and make memorable information about flora, fauna, navigation, genealogies, land resources and management and all the other domains which will be discussed more fully below. Studies of the songs and mythology from cultures as diverse as the Australian Dyirbal18 and the West African Yoruba19 demonstrate the vast array of practical information stored within the ritual performances.

Unfortunately in English we do not have words which represent the complexity of indigenous knowledge systems. With the arrogance of literate colonisers, we label rituals according to the nearest equivalent we can find in our cultures. Prevalent is the misuse, of the word ‘magic’. For example, rituals performed before a hunt are often described as ‘hunting magic’ with an explanation given that the indigenous culture believes these calls to supernatural beings increase the fortune of the hunt. Indigenous cultures in fact assure us that the ritual does work this way, and a rational analysis that makes no recourse to the idea of ‘magic’ shows why this is most certainly the case. Rituals, that is repeated performances, not only request supernatural assistance but also often involve re-enactment of hunting strategies. When out in the field, calling to each other would not only take time but alert prey. The group enact their signals and co-operative plans to ensure an optimum hunt as well as reminding the hunters of the prey behaviour.

The hunting songs from Central Australia,20 for example, describe the subtleties of behaviour of the various prey. Dances demonstrate details such as ear movements of kangaroos which indicate when the prey is alert and therefore likely to flee or whether it is relaxed and unaware enabling closer approach. Performance of dances replicating these behaviours ensure that every member of the hunting party is observing and reacting appropriately. Songs replicate the subtle sounds of an animal feeding, again indicating that it is unaware of the hunter. Songs describe footprints and other tracking indicators whilst also warning against actions which may lead to noisy approach. The songs have also been shown to encode which parts of the prey are most valuable in terms of proteins and oils, and which bones are rich with marrow to ensure these items are brought back to camp.

Indigenous ‘magic’ is grounded in reality and calls on spirituality without any necessity for differentiation between the two. Informal discussions with members of Australian and North American indigenous cultures assured me that they were perfectly well aware of this link. I am not qualified to assess the value of the call to spiritual forces, but the practicality of the ‘hunting magic’ is undeniable.

Orality expert, Ruth Finnegan argues that too often a misleading distinction is made between modern, rational, literate ‘us’ and the primitive, magical, oral ‘them’. This is reflected in the way that ‘they’ are ‘somehow mystically closer to nature than ourselves’. This idea has been popular with sociologists and romantics who dream of a vanished natural past, but Finnegan claims it says more about the writers than about the evidence.21

Communications expert, Emevwo Biakolo writes:

perhaps the commonest in all anthropological-philosophical discourses of this sort … is the notion that the magical, with its connotation of, and connection with, ritual and religion, is the dominant characteristic of all primitive thought and behavior. The volume of anthropological research, from James Frazer upwards, demonstrates that this assertion is indeed overwhelming. What is not so certain is the theoretical justification for this. .... Why, for example, is the comparison not made within the same experiential domain, say, between traditional religious thought and modern Western religious thought? Or alternatively, between an instance of traditional nonreligious thought and science?22

Polish born anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski emphasised in his writing about the Trobriand Islanders that they were perfectly capable of separating the magical (in our terms) and practical when asked to describe soils and cultivation. Similarly, Leah Minc’s study of the Nunamiut and Tareumiut,23 Dennis Tedlock’s research with the American Zuni24 and Polly Wiessner’s work with the Enga of Papua New Guinea,25 among many others, demonstrates that the knowledge keepers are perfectly capable of making a distinction between the mundane and the spiritual domains.

Tellingly, Jan Vansina26 describes the way a real event was developed into a mythological form with the full understanding of the Hopi of exactly what they were doing. Vansina wrote about a historical quarrel between the Pueblo Hopi speakers and Navajo concerning the border between their lands. Over the following eighty years, the record of the location of the border was enforced through narration of the events. The narrative increasingly took on characteristics of oral tradition, including mythological characteristics and, even today, the decisive affray is narrated as an aspect of Hopi history preserving the border location.

It is well beyond the scope of this essay to define and discuss religion in all its variations. In a broad, geographically diverse range of non-literate cultures, stories are told of spiritual beings who created the land, plants, animals and people. Reports from early contact with indigenous cultures were often written from a Christian ethic. Gods, worship and prayers were part of the worldview of Christian writers and therefore often assumed to be part of all cultural belief systems. In his huge collection of Central Australian Aboriginal songs, T.G.H. Strehlow wrote that ‘it is a striking characteristic that there are no invocations or prayers to the spirits or to the totemic ancestors contained in these songs’.27 Sir James Frazer makes a similar point:

it is a serious, though apparently a common, mistake to speak of a totem as a god and to say that is worshipped by the clan. In pure totemism, such as we find it among the Australian aborigines, the totem is never a god and is never worshipped.28

In contemporary Aboriginal contexts, stories come from Ancestral Beings, Spiritual Beings, Ancient Ones, Ancestors … but never gods. Nungarrayi, a Warlpiri colleague, emphasises that ‘the Dreaming’ is better translated as ‘the law’ and ‘the knowledge,’ and is not merely simplistic stories about religious beliefs as so often portrayed. The stories told to those who are not initiated give the narrative framework for layer upon layer to be added over a lifetime of learning.

Are the ancestors mythological or actual forebears? The distinction may be of more consequence for historians than indigenous people. For recent generations, they are most likely actual forebears. As we move further back in time, it is more likely they have been fully mythologized and maybe conflated with the beings in the origin stories. The distinction will vary hugely depending on the culture and their societal priorities. What is universal is the way in which the mythological stories encode a vast store of pragmatic, rational, spiritual and cultural information in a highly memorable form.

Although it is acknowledged that personal biases and background cannot be eliminated when trying to understand a different belief system, they can be minimised. By seeking analogies in the ethnographer’s own belief system, the ethnographer distances him or herself from looking more deeply at the purpose of ceremonies and supernatural beliefs, reducing them to primitive versions of what contemporary religious individuals might consider their own superior belief system. Terms which derive from analogies with Western cultures, words such as ‘gods’, ‘priest’, ‘prayer’, ‘worship’, should be avoided. Cultural beliefs should be represented, wherever possible, in the terms used by the indigenous people themselves.

The most revealing study I came across when trying to understand the complexity of mythology from an indigenous perspective involved another of the Pueblo cultures, the Tewa. Indigenous Tewa writer Alfonso Ortiz29 and ethnobotanist Richard I. Ford30 both describe the way in which the Pueblo ensure a reliable corn harvest each year in a harsh environment. Each suggests reading the version of the other. If you read Ortiz alone you would learn the stories of the Corn Mothers and of the coloured Corn Maidens (blue, yellow, red, white, black and all-coloured). The stories link to many other aspects of the oral tradition. If you read Ford alone, you would learn of the extraordinary ability of the Pueblo to maintain pure strands of multiple varieties of different coloured corn over generations if not millennia, despite the readiness with which corn varieties cross-pollinate. Read together, you will find a stark representation of seemingly mutually exclusive versions about corn, yet each deliver the specialist knowledge on which the physical survival of the Pueblo people depended. Ford writes:

From an ecological perspective, plant nomenclature is a component of the information system that regulates behaviour towards plants. In the case of corn, the colour name used to define each type implies a culturally recognized range of hue and the physical management of the corn in order to comply with these expectations. The skills and knowledge required to maintain these corn types include recognition of pollination, spacing of fields, patterning of plant populations, time for maturation, and noninjurious cultivation techniques. If the cognized environment is considered, then attention to pure coloured corn is the means to revere or to placate the spirit forces of the Tewa world who would otherwise be offended and bring disaster to the crops and people if fed “mixed up” corn. Pure color corn is a mediating force in the cognized environment. On the other hand, when the operational environment is examined, then the maintenance of named corn types by raising each type in separate and dispersed fields prevents total crop losses in a land of climatic extremes and uncertainty. From both points of view, the application of a particular colour term to maize requires concomitantly an appropriate behavioural sequence for its perpetuation from time immemorial, and verification of a farmer’s adherence to tradition is attested to by the condition and success of his corn harvest.31

Weather and the impact of domesticated animals, grasshoppers, birds, skunks, deer and nomadic raiders also impact upon the corn harvest. Although the total yield will not be maximised, planting different colours reduces the high risk of total loss which could occur with a monoculture. Modern farming methods have a great deal to learn from the Pueblo. Ford explicitly linked ritual to survival when he writes:

ritual imperatives and traditional cultural practices depend on corn types of pure colour. Adherence to the practice of growing sacred colour corn in the face of adversity means survival for the Tewa…. The outcomes resulting from adhering to ritual needs through the cognized environment, or maintaining named corn types in separate and dispersed fields in the operational environment, are the same – reliable corn production in a harsh climate.32

Research indicating that rituals serve the pragmatic purposes as described for the Tewa can be found across the world, such as in taro cultivation in the New Guinea Highlands.33

Domains of knowledge

The human species has adapted to almost every environment on the planet in a way no other animal species has been able to do. Such incredible adaptability is only possible because humans have developed methodologies which can manage a vast store of information.

There is ample evidence that the knowledgeable elders in indigenous cultures across the world effectively memorised field guides to all the flora and fauna in their environment. They stored extensive navigational charts in memory, along with the legal system, trade agreements and the cultural expectations that bind communities together.34 The most complex data sets of all, intricately interwoven genealogies, are found it all oral cultures, held in memory and often used to structure other aspects of the knowledge system. Oral tradition always records lessons from the past to provide knowledge for the future, especially about how to survive in times of extreme resource stress or cultural conflict.

My research into the indigenous stories of the 23 crocodilian species around the world indicated that the stories reflect a very detailed observation of the physiology and behaviour of the specific species in the local environment, those which are eaten, avoided or simply observed.35 This started me on the journey through years of research discovering the extraordinary depth of animal knowledge stored in the oral tradition of indigenous cultures across the world. The natural sciences provided a database which is essentially consistent for both literate and non-literate observers, providing a particularly valuable insight into the way knowledge is stored so differently across the orality/literacy divide.

The difficulty is finding and funding a team which can successfully cross the divide and produce a record which accurately reflects the knowledge of the indigenous elders. For example, the North American Navajo have worked with ethnoentomologists to produce a classification of over 700 insects. Most have no apparent practical use, but are known because, being human, the Navajo value knowledge for its own sake.36 The research team thus requires a number of elders, scientists from the required domain and extremely adept linguists. This is not an easy team to put together.

An ethnobotanist must be familiar with every plant in the environment under study. Botanists struggled during research among the Hanunóo in the Philippines in the middle of last century because indigenous experts named 1,625 Hanunóo plant types, far more than were known to Western science at the time.37 More likely, the scientist would need to recognize all plants and animals, something rare in our segmented academic world. John Bradley described this issue when writing about trying to learn an Australian Yanyuwa songline, a kujika:

So much knowledge was being presented to me, at many levels and intricately interrelated. I was struggling to find words for much of the material as it was deeply encoded and dependent on other knowledge.

There were many verses describing the myriad species – fish, sharks, birds and other animals and plants, whose names in Yanyuwa were so familiar to my informants that I had yet to identify in English. ...

I was amazed by the detail of this kujika, especially of the different species of sea turtles, their life cycle and habitats; it was a biology lesson in sung form.38

The resulting studies have concluded that the classifications of non-literate cultures are scientific in the Western sense of the word.39 However, unlike in Western education, these classifications form a concrete foundation for adding layers of information from a variety of domains by linking the knowledge to specific places. The classifications are made more memorable through performance. When introducing a detailed study of the plant use of the Australian Yankunytjatjara culture, linguist Cliff Goddard commented on the inadequacy of using only writing to record what he was being taught as much of the information was given through performance. 40

All indigenous cultures maintain knowledge of a pharmacopoeia, combining medicinal plant knowledge, information on protecting and binding wounds and treatment of mental illness. Often traditional medicines are seen as vastly inferior to Western science, but those treatments which are still considered purely traditional represent the remaining healing knowledge after much has already been adopted and refined by modern science.

The way in which animal and plant knowledge is integrated within the entire knowledge system is far too complex a topic for this essay. Suffice to say that an understanding of animals and plants within the environment offers a significant resource for setting the calendar on seasonal behaviour and migrations. Plants and animals are also frequently used as metaphor for human issues, a significant proportion of which deal with ethics and morality.

One area of indigenous study which has been well documented is that of navigation.41 No indigenous culture relies solely on their astronomical observations, detailed as these often were. If a navigator relied solely on the stars, they would only be able to travel on clear nights. Obviously, this would never be the case. Pacific navigators cross thousands of miles of open ocean. The navigation schools across the Pacific involved years of intense training song, story, mythology and incorporated a host of physical mnemonic devices to ensure their navigators could recall details enabling them to safely travel between distant islands and to colonise further and further afield. Australian Aboriginal cultures used a similar set of mnemonic technologies to create the singing tracks which enabled them to traverse the entire continent and surrounding seascapes, each language group able to teach a traveller the next stage. As much of the country is desert, navigation training had to ensure that sources of water were known. Survival depended on it. The Inuit also used a range of oral and material mnemonics to travel across moving ice, often with no visible landmarks. More importantly, their skills ensured that they could return home again across a landscape which may have changed visibly in the time they were away. Understanding snow drifts and wind angles, among many other features, was critical to the survival of both the hunters and their families waiting at home.

Navigation was also essential to ensure those travelling to gatherings managed to find their way, often across great distances. Anthropologist Howard Morphy described the relatively infrequent and complex ritual performances among Australian Aboriginal cultures as ‘often operatic in scale’42 involving thousands of participants. Such gatherings in traditional cultures served a multiplicity of purposes: trade, social meetings, securing marital partners and, critically for our purpose here, to share, repeat and trade information. But it was also essential that the attendees arrived on time. Timekeepers in historic oral societies wielded immense power. All cultures, modern or traditional, operate with an awareness of both immediate and long-term time. In order to optimise hunting, gathering and any form of land management, someone must maintain a calendar to predict and respond to seasonal changes.

Unfortunately most ethnographers were not scientists nor did they have they linguistic skills necessary to recognise environmental knowledge. The desire to ‘educate’ indigenous peoples in Western beliefs blinkered those who made the first contact to the depth of the knowledge they were literally overwriting. More recently, many New Age devotees chose to misappropriate and romanticise indigenous cultural practices. They created the illusion that indigenous elders had some kind of psychic link to the earth. In every culture I studied, the elders had acquired the knowledge through years of learning and to imply otherwise is offensive. We literates study. Non-literates study every bit as hard. They use orality rather than literacy as their storage device.

With so many domains of knowledge, each with a vast store of information to be memorised, it is not surprising that knowledge was highly valued and a source of power. Essentially, an elder at the peak of his power would have memorised field guides to all the flora and fauna, navigational charts, a year of astronomical maps, the laws, ethical expectations and trade agreements, along with genealogical networks, far more complicated than our simple hierarchies of forebears. Anthropologist Jan Vansina argues that indigenous genealogies ‘are among the most complex sources in existence’.43 All this information would be stored in songs, numbering in the hundreds, if not over a thousand.

Although much of the information discussed above is essential for the survival of the society, both physically and culturally, all human societies, non-literate and literate, also demonstrate a love of knowledge for its own sake. French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote half a century ago that the ‘thirst for objective knowledge is one of the most neglected aspects of the thought of people we call “primitive”’.44 I would argue that this situation has not much improved. Lévi-Strauss also observed that ‘animals and plants are not known as a result of their usefulness; they are deemed to be useful or interesting because they are first of all known’. This aspect of ‘native’ science, Lévi-Strauss argues, ‘meet intellectual requirements rather than or instead of satisfying needs’.45 That intellectual system, being entirely stored in memory, needs to be structured and consciously retained. A new person, a new technology or a newly identified plant or animal species must be named and linked into the existing system to ensure it is not forgotten.

It is this method of constantly structuring information and adding new information to the existing structure which is the strength of indigenous knowing. The intellectual domain is sorely lacking in popular depictions in indigenous culture, especially when recreated for documentaries of prehistoric cultures.

Literacy makes storing information much easier, enabling a much larger data bank to be available in permanent storage. While engaging with the huge benefits of literacy, we have also dispensed with many aspects of orality which are natural to human learning and understanding. We segregate art and music from science and literature. We don’t let vivid characters tell the stories about the science and history, geography and politics. We don’t ground our curriculum in the physical environment, letting memory locations fix the information in logical sequences in touchable places that are infinitely expandable. We sit still when we could dance.

I have no doubt that a fusion of literacy and orality offers the optimum for contemporary education.

II Initiation as the path to restricted knowledge

There are no truly egalitarian societies known. Those that appear to be egalitarian are so judged because there is no differentiation in material wealth. No society is egalitarian when it comes to knowledge. Cross-cultural ethnographic evidence is unequivocal. Power in small scale traditional societies, mobile and sedentary, is granted to those who control knowledge.46 It is only in larger societies that leadership is maintained through force and leaders amass personal wealth.

It is through initiation that the young gain the higher levels of the knowledge system and the most critical information which must be retained accurately. I have explored the way knowledge was disseminated in a wide variety of oral cultures, including the mobile Australian Aboriginal cultures and the sedentary Pueblo farmers, the African Luba and Yoruba, the New Guinea Tsembaga, the New Zealand Maori and the Melanesian seafarers. Every one employed formal teaching methods to instil the songs, stories and dances through initiation.

Public and restricted knowledge

Teaching higher levels of the knowledge system in initiation ceremonies builds on the framework provided by the public stories taught to children. It is only these public stories which we, being uninitiated, can be told. Too often the child-like nature of the stories is taken to represent the intellectual standard of the entire culture. In fact, the stories appear to be child-like as they are primarily taught to children. In the view of the elders, we who are not initiated are only children in terms of initiation into the knowledge of their culture. Initiation leads to access to the restricted content of the oral tradition. The public/restricted dichotomy is critical in most, if not all oral cultures.47

Public narratives can be adapted and the skill of the storytellers is hugely admired. Even if the performance includes pragmatic knowledge, the entertainment value of a well-told narrative adds to the memorability of the content. Embellishments may reflect the storyteller’s or singer’s talent and individuality, however the basic content will not vary greatly.

Initiation ceremonies are performed in restricted settings. As the initiates climb to higher levels, they are taught the more restricted versions encoding more and more of the knowledge system. The dichotomy between public and restricted knowledge, and degrees of each, can be found in cultures across the world. Imperfect repetition can lead to corruption of critical knowledge through the so-called ‘Chinese whispers’ effect. Corruption of factual content due to repetition by large a proportion of the people cannot be tolerated if the group is to survive. In particular, knowledge of plants, seasonality, genealogies and especially navigation cannot be adapted to the whim of the storyteller. Consequently, the most elite and restricted group store the songs which contain the information which must be retained accurately for the entire society. Secrecy is rigorously enforced. This public/restricted dichotomy is not only reflected in the songs but also in the sacred designs which are owned by those who are initiated to particular levels within particular subgroups, such as totems.

Australian Aboriginal men do not acquire the full complement of knowledge until they are quite old. It is only then that they attain status and authority. Australian anthropologist Howard Morphy writes:

creation of secret knowledge is part of the process of mystification by which other members of the society are persuaded by the authority and power of those without access to it. Control of such knowledge enables groups of people – elders, members of a secret society – to exercise some degree of control over other members of society.48

Anthropologist Peter R. Schmidt writes that in Tanzania:

the groups that directly controlled iron production did so with highly esoteric technological and ritual repertoire. The ritual that surrounded iron production mystified the technological process to such a degree that it appeared to be mastery over something natural, human fecundity, rather than control over specialized technological knowledge. Such powers of mystification conferred certain economic advantages to the groups that controlled them.49

Strategies to deal with times of extreme resource stress are more likely to be retained accurately through the restriction of the knowledge to the high levels of initiation. The hunter-gather cultures of the Nunamiut and Tareumiut of Northwest Alaska are constantly facing resource stress due to the wild seasonal fluctuations in the availability of their most important game animals, the caribou and the whale respectively.50 Anthropologist Leah Minc noted that the public forms of the songs tended to reflect the seasonal and short term adaptations to variation but retaining the body of reference knowledge on the pan-generational time scale involved restricted ritual performances. She recorded thirty recurrent themes within the restricted level of the oral tradition which reflected critical survival strategies including complex relationships with critical trading partners who depended on a different primary game animal. The survival information also included adopting different storage methods, pooling labour, utilising kinship ties, using secondary resources, conducting inter-community marriage and feasts, exploring resource potentials of other habitats, and even moving into other habitats. Knowledge imparted included learning to deal with unfamiliar resources through learning alternate skills via social contact. The oral tradition recorded the impact on resources of past scarcities, seasonality, famines, starvation, death, as well as the effect of climatic changes.51 the implications of Minc’s research are also reflected in studies of the Klamath and Modoc myths from North America52 and the famine myths of the Tsimshian of British Columbia as well as the Kagruru of Eastern Tanzania.53

As access to restricted material cannot be granted to the uninitiated, ethnographic knowledge of what is often referred to as ‘secret business’ is understandably limited. Given that most ethnographers were male, ‘women’s business’ is severely underrepresented in the ethnographic reports.

Oral tradition is not just oral history

The term ‘oral history’ is often used interchangeably with ‘oral tradition’. Knowledge attained over long spans of time should be considered as a complex of genres rather than the discipline which Western cultures value as history. Oral tradition encompasses all knowledge of the lived environment with oral history as a subset. It is generally accepted that for most indigenous cultures, oral tradition is unreliable as a chronological history.54 For many cultures, in particular Australian Aboriginal societies, an accurate chronological record of past events is not of high consequence. By comparison, some Maori can recite 800-year genealogies from when their ancestors first reached New Zealand.55

However, a great deal of research has emerged recently about the longevity and accuracy of oral tradition in Australian Aboriginal cultures, the oldest continuous culture in the world. The information is specifically about landscape changes. In one study of 21 locations around Australia’s long coastline, oral tradition has recorded events that occurred more than 7000 years ago. The stories, both narrative and mythological, refer to rising sea levels and the resulting change in geography when the post ice age sea level rise reached its present levels. Other stories tell of volcanic eruptions, the creation of islands and formation of lakes and habitat changes.56

It is not surprising that the stories which can be traced accurately for such an extraordinarily long time relate to the landscape and skyscape, both of which are used as fundamental mnemonic sequences for Australian indigenous oral tradition. Similar stories are known from around the world, but have often been dismissed as wholly fictional by researchers. This probably reflects the mnemonic wrapping of mythology and the inability of Western scientists to recognise it as such. Lévi-Strauss, in his seminal work, the title of which is usually translated as The Savage Mind, asked that ethnographers reconsider the representation of the low intellectual level of ‘primitives’, writing that scientific thought is ‘extremely widespread in so-called primitive societies. We must therefore alter our traditional picture of this primitiveness’.57

Primary orality

How can indigenous elders remember so much information reliably when they have exactly the same fragile memories as those reading this essay? What is the mechanism that enables such extraordinary recall? Most importantly, can we learn from the mnemonic skills of oral cultures and in so doing enhance our own educational experiences?

The theoretical foundation of my research comes from a robust body of research on primary orality which includes the way in which knowledge is stored in cultures that have no contact with writing.58 ‘Primary orality’ is essentially an information technology. The mnemonic technologies discussed can be considered as tools that increase the ability of humans to process information and so increase the amount and complexity of information preserved in cultures with no access to writing. The research indicates that song, story, dance, repetition, rhyme, rhythm, epithets and mythology all serve to increase the memorability of information and are therefore considered as mnemonic technologies.59 It is critical to note that indigenous knowledge systems tend to be integrated, the concept of separate spiritual and secular information being almost meaningless. Mythology works as a very powerful mnemonic device while also serving spiritual needs.

The role of song, dance, story and mythology

In Western theatres, music, dance and the telling of stories with mythological characters are primarily for entertainment. In Western education systems, we often offer the performance arts as a separate class from the subjects which are considered more academic. However, a major lesson from indigenous cultures is that song, dance and vivid storytelling enhance the ability to retain critical information in all genres accurately and in a structured form.

In primary oral cultures, the performance arts serve a broad and critical role. In looking at four groups of contemporary hunter-gatherers from four very different environments on three separate continents, Iain Morley found that the traditional music mostly, if not always, ‘constitutes an important repository of knowledge’.60 It can easily be argued that due to the importance of rhythm for memorisation, indigenous musical instruments should be considered as mnemonic tools.

Indigenous Australian, Eileen McDinny (Yanyuwa) explains: ‘Everything got a song, no matter how little, it’s in the song – name of plant, birds, animal, country, people, everything got a song’61.

In an analysis of the Australian Yolgnu songs, anthropologists noted that that descriptions of the plants and animals encoded in the songs describe the form, colours, smells and sounds of flora and fauna along with seasonal changes.62 I am used to classifying according to observed characteristics, rarely using more than one sense. My Walpiri colleague, Nungarrayi, suggested that I listen to the trees and grasses and hear the differences. Not convinced, I tried. Within minutes I could tell the difference between the sounds of the eucalypts and acacias. I could tell the trees from the grasses. Although it was nowhere near sufficient to identify the species, I was convinced that this would be possible. I tried smelling and touching the species around me and, not surprisingly, the differences were remarkable and would be highly valuable in identifying species.

Indigenous use of the sound of birdsong is widely documented. It is close to impossible to identify bird songs from the written description in a field guide. Recognising the call of a bird is valuable for identification and for tracking a bird which is a food source or environmental indicator. But it can be more than that. Identification of a bird call can mean the difference between life and death. The aquatic diving bird, known as loons or divers (Gavia spp.) have a piercing call, precious to Tlingit and Inuit and many other cultures across its wide northern range.63 Critically, the loon is not a pelagic, that is it will not stay out at sea overnight like most sea birds. Consequently, if a fisher is caught still fishing or moving between oceanic locations when the weather turns nasty, he can follow the loon back to land as long as he can recognise its call from among the many heard at sea. Performing the song which replicates the call of the loon during ‘fishing magic’ before venturing out to sea is a potentially life-saving ritual.

Songs may or may not be accompanied by dances. Dance may be performed with or without song. Often they are performed together. In the film of Aboriginal dances (Cameron 1993), the Woomera Aboriginal Corporation chose to present fourteen dances, along with a narration that referred to them constantly as ‘our law’ and to their role in teaching the culture. The majority of the dances were about animals, of which six involved a metaphorical teaching of ethical behaviour. Other dances were entirely pragmatic, such as demonstrating how to make fire, the way the sea behaves on the rocks, and how to detect and collect honey.

Like all aspects of oral tradition, dances are not stagnant forms, but are maintained, adapted or created as serves the needs of the society. Hamilton A. Tyler described the performance of the Hilili-Eagle dance, introduced into Zuni from another Pueblo culture, Acoma-Laguna, around 1892.64 Significantly, he wrote about the way that various aspects of the dance had been added such that ‘a number of elements are slowly gathered to form a new ceremony’ and that a ‘myth grew up almost immediately to account for parts of this new Zuni dance, which indicates that myths can have secular origins and only acquire religious meaning with later developments’. He described the way the dance was incorporated into the ceremonial calendar and restricted to the control of one of the societies, which effectively indexed it so it would not be lost.

Philosopher David Abram argues that anthropologists have tended to view the stories from oral tradition as ‘confused attempts at causal explanation by the primitive mind’.65 If the indigenous story carries knowledge about a particular plant or natural element, he explains, then that entity, such as a plant, stone or weather event, will often be cast, like all of the other characters, in a fully animate form. It will be capable of human-like adventures and experiences while being susceptible to the kinds of setbacks or difficulties that we know from our own lives. This makes the character and the encoded information about the plant easily remembered along with medicinal properties and risks of poisoning. The precise steps in its preparation will be clearly portrayed in the sequence of events in the legend chanted during its preparation.66 Abram concluded that stories from oral tradition ‘which we literates misconstrue as naïve attempt at causal explanation may be recognized as a sophisticated mnemonic method whereby precise knowledge is preserved and passed along from generation to generation’.67

Are oral cultures aware that they are using mythology in this way? Anthropologist John MacDonald quotes Inuit Elder, Hubert Amkrualik:

Stars were well known and they were named so that they could be easily identified whenever it was clear. They were used for directional purposes as well as to tell time…. stars could be remembered by the legends associated with them. The people before us had no writing system so they had legends in order to remember.68

For the Pueblo, a cast of masked mythological characters, numbering in the hundreds, perform a ceremonial role imparting information through highly entertaining dances. These kachina (katsina) are also represented on pottery and other decorated forms while being given to children in the form of figurines. These are not dolls, they are the foundation of a knowledge structure which will be built around the kachina over a lifetime. One popular kachina in contemporary Pueblo culture features a female character with many children. If found in an archaeological context, it may be readily interpreted as a fertility figure. It is a representation of the Storyteller demonstrating the importance of conveying the stories to children. Without the oral component, interpretation of figurines is highly speculative.

As is too often the case with other African art objects, Luba works have been labelled simplistically as “fertility figures” due to their nudity, or “ancestor figures” because of what is interpreted as ethereal spirituality, without an accurate sense of what they were intended to mean for the people who originally made, owned and used them.69

A set of figurines can be sequenced to act as an index to the knowledge system. Lévi-Strauss described the way a collection of 58 figurines were used by the Senufo of Southern Mali during initiation ceremonies. These figurines represented animals, people or symbols of activities. They were shown to novices in a prescribed order. Lévi-Strauss argued that the elders used the figurines as a lexicon of symbols which formed the ‘canvas of instruction imparted to them’.70

III Material mnemonic devices

However the authorities on primary orality did not recognise the significance of material mnemonic devices, ranging from the landscape, skyscapes and permanent art forms through to a vast array of portable mnemonic devices. One of the major writers in the field, British social anthropologist Jack Goody, writes about a few well-recognised mnemonic devices including the birchbark scrolls of the Ojibwa, the winter counts of the Dakota and the Australian churinga. Goody concludes that these mnemonic devices are used to:

record or identify the words of the song, the accounts of an individual, the event of the year. They maybe abstract or pictorial, and are ‘signs’ of the sequential kind. However they are not transcripts of language, but rather a figurative shorthand, a mnemonic, which attempts to recall or prompt linguistic statements rather than to reproduce them.71

Later in his book, Goody is more specific:

Let me put the problem in another way. If verbatim learning were widespread in oral cultures, we would expect to find developed there a number of mnemotechnical devices of the sort described by Francis Yates in her well-known book on the [sic] The Art of Memory (1966). Certainly mnemonic devices were available to pre-literate cultures, though the repeated recourse to the quipu of the Inca as an example might suggest that these were not so common as is sometimes supposed. But, more significantly, the elaborate systems discussed by Yates, appear to have been invented by a literate society. “Few people know” writes Yates, “that the Greeks, who invented many arts, invented an art of memory which, like the other arts, was passed on to Rome whence it descended in the European tradition”72

I have no argument with Goody’s conclusions that verbatim learning is not widespread in oral cultures. I have also found that the khipu is referred to constantly, while discussion of other mnemonic devices is difficult to find. However, my research shows that a wide variety of mnemonic devices are in fact much more common that his comments imply. I disagree very strongly with Jack Goody’s claim that the method of loci is not found within non-literate cultures. I can find no difference between the Art of Memory, as described by Yates, and the Australian Aboriginal songlines discussed at the start of this essay. Nor can I find any difference with that mnemonic technology and the use of pilgrimage trails by Native Americans, processional roads of Polynesia or the Inca ceques.

Alongside the landscape and skyscapes, oral cultures all use an array of smaller mnemonic devices, many of which are portable.73 The knotted cord device used by the Inca, the khipu (also spelt quipu) is an inordinately effective device. Khipus consist of a main cord with any number of attached cords which hang vertically when used. Great complexity can be encoded through the use of different colours, secondary cords attached to the primary cords, twists in various directions and a complex of multiple knots. It is the most flexible of all the portable memory devices I have used because of the ability to tie and untie the knots, add or remove cords and constantly alter any aspect of the device. I have argued that the reason the non-literate Inca managed an empire which outshone their literate contemporaries, the Aztecs and the Maya, was their use of the khipu in combination with a cognised landscape.74 The systems of ceques by which they divided their capital Cusco in Peru, operated exactly like the method of loci. Along the extensive system of roads, some which may have been purely imaginary, were locations at which rituals were performed. These are often referred to as ‘shrines’ for want of a better word. Spanish chroniclers quote the Inca description of them as being like books recording their knowledge.

All the non-literate cultures I have explored used mnemonic devices. Given that the human brain is similar across the world, it is not surprising to find that the range of mnemonic technologies is similar across a wide variety of oral cultures but that these general categories of memory aids are implemented very differently across disparate cultures. In any given culture, a range of material mnemonic devices will be used concurrently.

Universal is the role of vibrant characters, be they based on actual forebears or mythological ancestors or a combination of both, to tell the stories. Versions of these characters permeate all stories and are represented on a vast array of media and in figurines. They are often portrayed as masked figures in ceremonial dances. I use a combination of key figures from history as well as characters based on animals and plants in memorising the domains of information in my own memory experiments. What has surprised me is the degree to which I have become emotionally involved with these characters and the information they convey through their memorable acts and words. There is a huge lesson for education in the role of human agents, and of imagination, when teaching and learning all forms of knowledge from the humanities to science, technology and mathematics. Indigenous cultures engage with their characters throughout their integrated knowledge systems in all domains of knowledge.

Too much scholarly writing refers to enigmatic decorated objects found within traditional cultures as ‘ritual’ or ‘magical’ or ‘religious’ without exploring any possible purpose for encoding the vast corpus of rational information which is essential for the survival of the population. My own research organised this information to form a classification of the mnemonic devices widely used by oral cultures which will enable ethnographers and archaeologists to consider this role in interpretation of enigmatic objects they may encounter.

I have no doubt that educationalists can also make use of these technologies to encode aspects of the regular curriculum. Suitably decorated objects are so effective as memory devices that they enable the discussions and commentary which are not available to students who do not have a basic knowledge grounded in a firm structure on which to build higher levels from the Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive domain: comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Without a firm knowledge base, the higher levels are severely weakened.

Indigenous mnemonic technologies

After the landscape and skyscapes discussed in the first chapter of this essay, there are other non-portable mnemonic technologies. Decorated poles are known across a wide variety of cultures, but most famously from the totem poles of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Totem poles relate to stories, some of which are restricted. Similarly, rock art is known to act as a memory aid for Australian cultures and has probably served that purpose globally for millennia.

Nungarrayi, to use her Warlpiri title, explained to me that for Australian Aboriginal people, art is never primarily for aesthetics. It is always to help remember Country, the stories and the knowledge. Australian Yolngu people have written about the laws and rights to sea for non-Yolngu through bark paintings in a book specifically designed for that purpose.75 In the book, Dula Nurruwuhun writes:

By painting these designs we are telling you our story. From time immemorial we have painted just like you use a pencil to write with. Yes we use our knowledge to paint from the ancient homelands to the bottom of the open ocean.76

Djon Mundine writes:

Aboriginal bark paintings are more than just ochre on bark: they represent a social history; an encyclopaedia of the environment; a place; a site; a season; a being; a song; a dance; a ritual; an ancestral story and a personal history.77

Indigenous designs the world over include representational figures of animals, animal tracks, landscape, plants and humans. However, a large proportion of the motifs consist of circles, spirals, arcs, lines, chevrons, dots and a vast variety of other abstract shapes enabling a multiplicity of meanings and many levels of complexity to be encoded to the same device. The more restricted knowledge, that referring to the information which must be maintained accurately, tends to be linked to the abstract designs.

The open sacred places, the marae of Polynesia, included wooden structures which housed carved figures. These carvings act as mnemonic for complex genealogies. Extremely long notched sticks have also been used as mnemonic aids for genealogies by cultures in the Americas and Africa. The best documented are the staves still used across the Pacific cultures where each knob represents a generation, enabling the oral specialist to recite the genealogy and associated events by touching each of the knobs in turn. Well documented examples include the Rarotongan genealogy staff and the New Zealand Maori rakau whakapapa.78

In the Sepek River area of New Guinea, the Iatmul retain an enormously elaborate totemic system of personal names as a mnemonic for their mythology. Research has shown that a ‘learned man’ may possess between ten and twenty thousand multi-syllabic personal names, each of them acting as mnemonic to the songs possessed by the clan. They constantly recite the names to ensure they are memorised correctly.79

There are a vast array of handheld objects made of fabric, stone or wood and inscribed with abstract decorations which are used as mnemonic devices. Having implemented a range of these for encoding similar genres of information, I have found them to be extraordinarily effective.

Winter counts are maintained by various language groups within the Native American cultures. They take the form of pictographs drawn in sequence on hides or fabrics. The annual cycle is taken from the time of the first snowfall of the winter. One significant event from the previous year is added to the pictographic collection to act as a mnemonic to the history of the tribe for that year. Other events, such as births, marriages and socio-political occurrences, are stored in stories linked to the event depicted. The winter count acts as memory aid to the oral history, enabling both content and sequence to be recorded.80

The oral specialists, the Midéwewin of the Ojibwa(y) of North America, also referred to as the Chippewa(y), used inscribed scrolls made of bark from birch trees to aid the recall of the origin-migration songs which form the basis of their oral tradition. Not only acting as a guide to the songs encoding the oral tradition, the scrolls had marks for changes in rhythm, tempo and the divisions between song sequences for the performance, which was accompanied by drums and rattles.81 Very similar to the birchbark scrolls are songboards, inscribed wooden boards used to aid memory of songs during performance in a number of Native American tribes.

Inscribed wooden objects are commonly used as they are light to carry. In the case of the mobile Australian cultures, symbolic decorations were added to shields, boomerangs and other utilitarian objects. I have been granted custodianship of a food carrying dish known as a coolamon. The underside of the curved wooden dish is covered with etched lines which form no discernible pattern but are also clearly not random. My Warlpiri colleague, Nungarrayi, on presenting me with the 100-year old coolamon from the Western Desert, explained that the symbols on the coolamon reminded people:

of meetings, places, stories, events and travels across the landscape’s dreaming tracks, in the footsteps of the ancestors and creation spirits. Such symbols also had levels of meaning according to who read them. Initiated women would know the deeper meanings. Coolamons were used by women as the gatherers and nurturers to carry food, water, small animals and lizards, honey ants, sugar bag (wild bush honey), medicine leaves and plants and even babies! The coolamons were extremely important possessions. They supported life and carried messages.

A very similar technology in terms of its mnemonic properties is the churinga (also spelt tjuringa) of the mobile Australian Desert cultures. Churinga as usually elongated, flat pieces of wood or stone incised with geometric designs. Unlike the coolamon, they are restricted objects, seen only by initiated men. Fully initiated men would sit with the churinga, touching each symbol and singing the related songs, telling the stories, reinforcing the knowledge and teaching the new initiates. Photographs of ‘men of memory’ from the elite Mbudye Society of the African Luba show the users sitting touching each portion of their memory board in exactly the same way.

The Luba Kingdom once flourished in what is now The Democratic Republic of Congo. Their memory board, the lukasa, is an extremely complex esoteric mnemonic device, constructed of wood and encrusted with beads and shells. Lukasas were used as mnemonic to vast amounts of oral literature and other information which was highly restricted and gradually taught by older members. Each bead or shell on the Lukasa could be read in multiple ways depending on the context. The lukasa also acted as an index to Bambudye ceremonies and the complex set of initiations required to progress through the society. This initiation sequence was likened to a journey through the maze of beads on the lukasa.82

I have created a number of memory boards based on the technology behind the lukasa. To one, I have encoded the 408 birds of my state in taxonomic order. I have added information including identification, habitat and behaviour. I am in the process of expanding the use of the same device to form a field guide to all 880 birds of Australia, and have no doubt that it can be done. I would never have considered this possible without actually working with a memory board myself.

Other mnemonic technologies which I have found effective, but difficult to implement, are the so-called ‘divination’ systems of the Yoruba of West Africa. In the best documented system, sixteen cowrie shells or pine nuts are tossed, the reading resulting from the number of shells or nuts which land face up. A close reading of the definitive text on the practice shows a complex knowledge system using the fall of the cowries to index the restricted knowledge hidden behind the public divination practice. The verses encode, along with ritual instructions, knowledge of animals, plants and a pharmacopoeia, how to protect against smallpox infection, navigation instructions, rules for trading, guidelines for the use of power and authority, methods for dispute resolution, cultural history along with social and legal precedents. American anthropologist William R. Bascom produced a 305-page volume of the song-poetry which represents all the verses memorised by a single, knowledgeable sixteen-cowrie diviner.83

The sequenced group of 256 Odù in the more complex Ifá divination system, which requires two tosses of the seeds or cowries, is estimated to contain over 1200 verses at its most minimal level.84 Similarly, the Highland Mayan ‘daykeepers’, members of the Quiché language group of Guatemala, have retained their oral tradition into contemporary times. They use sequences of tossed seeds to help remember divinations and their extremely complex calendar.85 At this stage of my experimentation, I am not convinced these are the best methods for contemporary implementation due to their complexity but I am far from experienced enough with these technologies to reach any firm conclusion.

The knowledge specialists of a number of different cultures use groups of objects as memory aids. Strung on a piece of cord or carried around in a net, these objects are used to represent the repertoire of songs. The American Blackfoot Indians use a bundle of objects in ceremonies ensuring the correct song sung for each object presented in a prescribed order. Some ceremonial bundles contain over 160 items. West African Mende healing specialists carry a bag of stones, each representing a particular illness, and which are manipulated as the elder asks the patient questions. My limited experimentation with bundles of objects indicates that this would be a very effective memory system offering multiple levels of complexity.

Arrangements of stones, shells and sticks can be used as mnemonic and teaching aids. The Inuit, for example, use stones to represent the interrelationship of celestial bodies and the seasonal behaviour of the sun. The Pacific island navigators are renown for their extraordinary ability to regularly cross hundreds of miles of open ocean. Their knowledge system involves the memorisation of many lengthy chants, teaching about marine animals and plants, navigation by the stars, swells and islands, weather and food sources, all learnt through complex mental imaging studied through the manipulation of stones and stick chart.

We have a great deal to learn from non-literate cultures about grounding knowledge in structured systems using robust memory technologies. It is perhaps time to introduce them into contemporary education.

With only a few years of experimenting with indigenous mnemonic technologies, I have become convinced of the power of using physical spaces to ground a structure for adding ever more complex layers of information. What has surprised me most is the way in which holding a complex of structured information in memory has enabled me to see patterns in the knowledge and play with ideas based on facts which are readily available in a way which was not possible when I relied so heavily on the written word alone. I have had insights which would not have been possible had I continued to keep my knowledge in books and computer files all indexed according to the non-integrated silos which the development of academic disciplines has imposed on education.

I walk through time in a memory palace around my home and neighbourhood which starts from the emergence of the first life forms on earth to the present. On another journey, I walk through a list of every country in the world from the largest in population to the smallest. Clearly these separate journeys overlap in content, but that never becomes confusing. On the same set of locations as the countries of the world, I have the elements of the periodic table. The associations merely enhance the experience in a way which is impossible to explain in writing. My landscape is alive with characters, with images and with stories. I have field guides to the birds, mammals, other animals and plants of my state linked to handheld memory devices, a stone row and a totem pole which in turn inform a ‘songline’ through a piece of local bushland. These topics interweave with each other and with the seasonal changes which are slowly generating a natural calendar. I have a history of art encoded to a knotted cord device based on the Inca khipu. I have a set of ‘ancestors’, a group of historical figures linked to decks of cards. As I walk the history journey, I can greet each of my card-characters from Homer to my Joker, Douglas Adams. They gain a context and interrogate their time in history. I sing knowledge, dance information and make up wildly vivid stories. I never confuse what is real with what my imagination is creating to make it all memorable. I can always extract the information I need from its mnemonic wrapping with ease.

We encourage toddlers to dance and sing and listen to stories. Why don’t they grow into students who dance their science, sing their mathematics and create stories about the rules of grammar? Why is anthropomorphism integral to the lives of very young children and frowned upon as they age? We should be giving our children figurines around which to tell stories and create characters who can accompany them right through school. If we taught children how to use memory palaces, create songlines and attach information to works of art, we would give them skills that can be applied in every aspect of education and continue to be invaluable for life.

Let us learn from oral cultures and bring music back from the province of entertainment and art back from the studio and place them in the very heart of our classrooms. Let us liberate imaginative narrative from the confines of creative writing into every knowledge domain. Let us learn how to ground our teaching in physical structures, large and small, which offer an ordered foundation on which to build a life of learning. Let us not only respect our indigenous cultures, but demonstrate that respect by acknowledging that while literacy is a superb tool, orality can partner it to enhance contemporary education and that it is indigenous elders who can lead the way.


1. A detailed academic justification for the claims within this essay can be found in Kelly, L (2015) Knowledge and power in prehistoric societies, Cambridge University Press, New York. That book also looks at the application of these ideas to archaeology. A broader discussion for the general reader can be found in Kelly, L (2016) The Memory Code, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW. A full bibliography covering both books can be found on my website.

2.  Couch, C. J. (1996). Information technologies and social orders. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, p. 15.

3. Freud, S. (1960). Totem and taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, pp. 1-2.

4.  Benterrak, K., Muecke, S., & Roe, P. (1984). Reading the country: an introduction to nomadology. Fremantle, W.A.: Fremantle Arts Centre Press. p. 14.

5.  Chatwin, B. (1988). The songlines. London: Pan Books in association with Jonathan Cape.

6.  Churchill, S. (2009). Australian bats (2nd ed.). Sydney: Allen & Unwin. p. 34.

7.  Rappaport, R. A. (1979). Ecology, meaning and religion (2nd ed.). Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, p. 175.

8. Bradley, J. (2010). Singing saltwater country: journey to the songlines of Carpentaria. Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin.

9.  Bradley, J. (2010) p. 47.

10.  Bradley, J. (2010) pp. 81–2.

11.  Bradley, J. J. (2008). When a Stone Tool Is a Dingo: country and relatedness in Australian Aboriginal notions of landscape. In B. David & J. Thomas (Eds.), Handbook of landscape archaeology Walnut Creek, Calif.: Left Coast Press.

12.  Morphy, H. (1991). Ancestral connections: art and an aboriginal system of knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 237.

13.  Fixico, D. L. (2003). The American Indian mind in a linear world: American Indian studies and traditional knowledge. New York: Routledge, p. 25.

14.  Vansina, J. (1985). Oral tradition as history Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, p. 45.

15.  Yates, F. A. (1966). The art of memory. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

16.  O'Brien, D. (2000). Learn to remember: practical techniques and exercises to improve your memory. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

17.   Bellezza, F. S. (1996). Mnemonic methods to enhance storage and retrieval. In R. A. Bjork & E. L. Bjork (Eds.), Memory: Handbook of perception and cognition (2nd ed.) (pp. 345-380). San Diego: Academic Press; Harwood, F. (1976). Myth, memory, and the oral tradition: Cicero in the Trobriands. American Anthropologist, 78(4), 783-796; Rubin, D. C. (1995). Memory in oral traditions: the cognitive psychology of epic, ballads, and counting-out rhymes. New York: Oxford University Press.

18.  Dixon, R. M. W., & Koch, G. (1996). Dyirbal song poetry: the oral literature of an Australian rainforest people St. Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press.

19.  McClelland, E. M. (1982). The cult of Ifa among the Yoruba. London: Ethnographica.

20.  Strehlow, T. G. H. (1971). Songs of Central Australia. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, pp. 296-327.

21. Finnegan, R. H. (1977). Oral poetry: its nature, significance and social context Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 259.

22. Biakolo, E. (1999). On the theoretical foundation of orality and literacy. Research in African Literatures, 30(2), 42-65. 1999, p. 52.

23.  Minc, L. D. (1986). Scarcity and survival: the role of oral tradition in mediating subsistence crises. Journal of anthropological archaeology, 5(1), 39-113.

24.  Tedlock, D. (1972). ‘Pueblo literature: style and verisimilitude’ in New perspectives on the Pueblos. A. Ortiz (Ed.). Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press: 219-242.

25.  Wiessner, P. (2002). The vines of complexity: egalitarian structures and the institutionalization of inequality among the Enga. Current Anthropology, 43(2), 233-269, p. 237.

26.  Vansina, J. (1985). Oral tradition as history Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 19-21.

27. Strehlow, T. G. H. (1971). Songs of Central Australia. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, p. 284.

28. Frazer, J. G. S. (1968 [1910]). Totemism and exogamy: a treatise on certain early forms of superstition and society ([1st ed.] reprinted. ed., Vol. 4). London: Dawsons, p. 5.

29.  Ortiz, A. 1969. The Tewa world: space, time, being, and becoming in a Pueblo society, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

30.  Ford, R. I. (1980). The color of survival. Discovery, 16-29.

31.   Ford (1980, p. 28).

32.   Ford (1980, pp. 27-8).

33. Sillitoe, P. (1998). The development of indigenous knowledge: a new applied anthropology. Current Anthropology, 39(2), 223-252, p. 228.

34.  Kelly, L. (2015). Knowledge and power in prehistoric societies: orality, memory and the transmission of culture. New York: Cambridge University Press., pp. 93-129, Kelly, L. (2016). The Memory Code. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, pp. 1-10.

35.  Kelly, L. (2006). Crocodile: evolution's greatest survivor. Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin, pp. 21-66.

36.   Wyman, L. C., & Bailey, F. l. (1964). Navaho Indian ethnoentomology. Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico Press.

37.   Lévi-Strauss, C. (1966). The savage mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 138; Ford, R. I. (1978b). Ethnobotany: historical diversity and synthesis. In R. I. Ford (Ed.), The nature and status of ethnobotany (pp. 33-49). Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology.

38. Bradley, J. (2010). Singing saltwater country: journey to the songlines of Carpentaria. Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin, p. 78.

39.  Durkheim, E., & Mauss, M. (1970 [1903]). Primitive classification (R. Needham, Trans. 2nd ed. ed.). London: Cohen and West.

40.   Goddard, C., & Kalotas, A. (2002). Punu: Yankunytjatjara plant use: traditional methods of preparing foods, medicines, utensils and weapons from native plants North Ryde, N.S.W.: Angus & Robertson.

41.  The implementation of traditional navigation skills is a massive and fascinating topic. I gave an overview of the field in Kelly, L. (2015). Knowledge and power in prehistoric societies: orality, memory and the transmission of culture. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 120-7. The navigation of Australian cultures over desert and through forest and the Inuit over moving ice in seemingly featureless environments is covered. Particularly astounding are the skills of the Pacific navigators. For more details see Gladwin, T. (1970). East is a big bird: navigation and logic on Puluwat atoll. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press and Lewis, D. (1972). We, the navigators: the ancient art of landfinding in the Pacific. Canberra: Australian National University Press.

42.  Morphy, H. (1998). Aboriginal art London: Phaidon Press., pp. 183-4.

43.  Vansina, J. (1985). Oral tradition as history Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, p.182.

44.  Lévi-Strauss, C. (1966). The savage mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 3.

45.  Lévi-Strauss, C. (1966), p. 9.

46. Kelly, L. (2015) Knowledge and power in prehistoric societies: orality, memory and the transmission of culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 14-35.

47. Kelly, L. (2015) pp. 24-28.

48.   Morphy, H. (1991). Ancestral connections: art and an aboriginal system of knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 77.

49.   Schmidt, P. R. (2006). Historical archaeology in Africa: representation, social memory, and oral traditions. Lanham, MD.: AltaMira Press, p. 142.

50.  Johnson, A. W., & Earle, T. (2000). The evolution of human societies: from foraging group to agrarian state (2nd ed. ed.). Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, p. 172.

51.  Minc, L. D. (1986). Scarcity and survival: the role of oral tradition in mediating subsistence crises. Journal of anthropological archaeology, 5(1), 39-113.

52.  Sobel, E., & Bettles, G. (2000). Winter hunger, winter myths: subsistence risk and mythology among the Klamath and Modoc. Journal of anthropological archaeology, 19(3), 276-316.

53.  Cove, J. J. (1978). Survival or extinction: reflections on the problem of famine in tsimshian and kaguru mythology. In C. D. Laughlin Jr. & I. A. Brady (Eds.), Extinction and survival in human populations (pp. 231-243). New York: Columbia University Press.

54.  Vansina, J. (1985). Oral tradition as history Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press.

55.  Flood, J. (2006). The original Australians: story of the Aboriginal people. Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin, p. 140.

56.  see for example Nunn, P. D., & Reid, N. J. (2016). Aboriginal Memories of Inundation of the Australian Coast Dating from More than 7000 Years Ago. Australian Geographer, 47(1), 11-47; Dixon, R. M. W. (1972). The Dyirbal language of North Queensland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

57. Lévi-Strauss, C. (1966). The savage mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 41.

58.  Goody, J. (1977). The domestication of the savage mind. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press; Ong, W. J. (2002 [1982]). Orality and literacy: the technologizing of the word. London: Routledge; Finnegan, R. H. (1988). Literacy and orality: studies in the technology of communication. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

59. Kelly, L. (2015) Knowledge and power in prehistoric societies: orality, memory and the transmission of culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-61.

60. Morley, I. (2006). Hunter-gatherer music and its implications for identifying intentionality in the use of acoustic space. In C. Scarre & G. Lawson (Eds.), Archaeoacoustics (pp. 95-105). Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, p. 103).

61.  As quoted in Bradley, J. (2010). Singing saltwater country: journey to the songlines of Carpentaria. Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin., p. 29.

62.  Attwood, B., & Magowan, F. (2003). Introduction. In B. Attwood & F. Magowan (Eds.), Telling stories: indigenous history and memory in Australia and New Zealand (pp. xi-xvii). Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin.

63.  Garfield, V. E., & Forrest, L. A. (1961). The wolf and the raven: totem poles of southeastern Alaska. Seattle: University of Washington Press, p. 37; MacDonald, J. (1998). The Arctic sky: Inuit astronomy, star lore, and legend. Ontario: Royal Ontario Museum/Nunavut Research Institute, p. 186.

64. Tyler, H. A. (1979). Pueblo birds and myths. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, pp. 75-6.

65. Abram, D. (1997). The spell of the sensuous: perception and language in a more-than-human world New York: Vintage Books, p. 119.

66. Abram (1997), p. 120.

67. Abram (1997), p. 121.

68. MacDonald, J. (1998). The Arctic sky: Inuit astronomy, star lore, and legend. Ontario: Royal Ontario Museum/Nunavut Research Institute, p. 168.

69. Roberts, M. N., & Roberts, A. F. (2007). Luba. Milan: 5 Continents Editions, p. 12.

70. Lévi-Strauss, C. (1966). The savage mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 154.

71.  Goody, J. (1987). The interface between the written and the oral Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 17).

72.  Goody (1987) p. 180 quoting Yates, F. A. (1966). The art of memory. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, p. xi.

73. A detailed analysis of indigenous mnemonic devices can be found in my books. Kelly, L. (2015) Knowledge and power in prehistoric societies: orality, memory and the transmission of culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 62-91, and Kelly, L. (2016). The Memory Code. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, pp. 34-76.

74.  Kelly, L. (2016). The Memory Code. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, pp. 266-70.

75. Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre. (1999). Saltwater: Yirrkala bark paintings of sea country: recognising indigenous sea rights. Neutral Bay, N.S.W.: Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre in association with Jennifer Isaacs Publishing.

76. Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre (1999), p. 10.

77. Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre (1999), p. 20.

78. Campbell, M. (2006). Memory and monumentality in the Rarotongan landscape. Antiquity, 80(307), 102(116).

79. Hage, P. (1978). Speculations on Puluwatese mnemonic structure. Oceania, XLIX(2), 81-95.

80. Krupat, A. (1998). America's histories. American Literary History, 10(1), 124-146.

81. Dewdney, S. (1975). The sacred scrolls of the Southern Ojibway. Toronto: University of Toronto Press among many.

82. Reefe, T. Q. (1977). Lukasa: a Luba memory device. African Arts, 10(4), 49-88; Roberts, M. N., & Roberts, A. F. (Eds.). (1996a). Memory: Luba art and the making of history. New York: Museum for African Art; Studstill, J. D. (1979). Education in a Luba secret society. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 10(2), 67-79.

83. Bascom, W. R. (1980). Sixteen cowries: Yoruba divination from Africa to the New World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

84. McClelland, E. M. (1982). The cult of Ifa among the Yoruba. London: Ethnographica.

85. Tedlock, B. (1992). Time and the highland Maya (Revised edition ed.). Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

About the Author

Dr Lynne Kelly is a science writer and Honorary Research Associate at LaTrobe University, Melbourne. After spending most of her career teaching mathematics, phyiscs and information technology at secondary school level, she returned to university to pursue an academic career. Becoming fascinated with the body of research on primary orality, Lynne has developed an understanding of the way non-literate cultures manage to memorise and teach a vast amount of practical information without writing. She has implemented many indigenous mnemonic technologies in a contemporary context and been astounded by their efficacy.

Lynne's research has been published in an academic monograph, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies, CUP, 2015, and a book for the mainstream market, The Memory Code, Allen & Unwin, 2016. She is delighted to expand on indigenous memory methods and their implications for contemporary education in an essay for Rounded Globe.


Text copyright © 2016 Lynne Kelly

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