I’ve been wondering if it might be a good time to recap a couple of important things. It might even be necessary. Judging from the state of modern scholarship, we apparently must take care to stave off a putative and widely accepted coming moment – a massive and inevitable erasing of human consciousness.
Doing research on oral traditions as I do, and wondering what scholars think of the potential durability of oral information, it turns out that very few of them seem to think much of orality as a medium of information transmission. Almost everyone at your local university seems to assume that social memory is prone to periodic earthquake-like slippages of awareness every so often in human history.
From the standpoint of the scholarly consensus, writing is a pretty handy thing because memory just does not suffice over the long term. And if we haven’t bothered to write down the stuff of human experience and knowledge, the consequence is deemed to be something like an implacable recurring moment that keeps returning humankind into the helpless forgetfulness from which we arose, not so long ago.
I think about this when I’m trying to figure out something that bothers me every so often. Where is the boundary of communal memory? Is there really an inevitable point at which the memory of a community will totally fail? Are there warning signs for when humanity unknowingly stands on the verge of the abyss?
For forgetfulness must surely be accountable for this historical condition. I’m not trying to quibble with scholars who hold this view. Everyone knows that we tend to forget things. Sure. It happens to all of us. Memory resides in us as an ephemeral messenger to deliver the news or withhold it.
This isn’t news to anyone. What bothers me is the thought that modern academic scholarship insists that there is or there should be something like a great mental terminator line that sweeps through human history to erase the things of the past. A permanent nightfall.
There is a widely accepted alternative to the Time Terminator model of the past. Time Immemorial. This model espouses a total belief in specific cultural origin stories as literal history. As it turns out, Time Immemorial seems to offer a popular option for committed adherents to racial Indianhood. One such adherent once responded to my thinking by taking a firm position on the literal historicity of her community’s origin story. She said, Okay, I guess his people came across the Bering Strait, but not mine. She very politely spoke of how racial Indians all respect one another’s origin stories and that’s why they don’t bother with reconciling them or rejecting anything.
But you know, pondering Time Immemorial, I just can’t seem to summon up much of what happened to me on June 22, 1971. Memory has left me with only the faintest remnant of what occurred in my world on that day. I guess this is what I mean when I say that it seems quite understandable when I meet people who accept the Time Terminator model of the past.
A few years ago in 2004 I found an old government identification card among my papers. There it was. On June 22, 1971 someone took my photo at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri and made up this ID card and handed it to me, a final memento of my father’s military career. Looking at the ID card, a faint memory rose up.
My mother had taken me to Whiteman, saying that we ought to shop there to save money, and I needed a current ID card so I could help. This isn’t much of a memory, and it doesn’t account for the whole day. For all I know, we took a B-52 from the Columbia airport to Whiteman.
And I know this is a very minor anecdote that doesn’t amount to much in terms of the larger picture, but it means something to me, and I guess it helps me to feel cautiously skeptical when I hear people make big claims for the durability of unwritten information over time. Hearing such claims, I think to myself, Sure, but what about June 22, 1971 – whatever happened to the rest of that day? I know this is a silly thing to think, so I keep it to myself.
It was sometime in the summer of 1971 that I had sex for the first time. It happened with one of the girls in my circle of friends. We were young hippies in those days, and one pleasant starlit evening she and I made love, not war. For something so momentous, I feel a little sad to think of how the details have mostly slipped away all these years later. It was a nice moment in my life and I recall how a great sense of warmth filled my heart, and the way I felt a little shy and so did she.
And I felt worried, too. I didn’t want to get her pregnant. I liked her, but I didn’t want to get married just yet.
See, my father had talked to me about sex one time in 1969. One of my relatives (a senior in high school) thought he’d gotten his girlfriend pregnant and when my mother and father heard the news they felt quite upset. I picture their tense faces, words with sharp edges. Even though the sixties had liberated a few people from some oppressive sexual social conventions, the sixties hadn’t bothered with trying to liberate my parents.
A curious fourteen-year-old, I idly stood nearby as my folks took stock of the situation. For some mysterious reason, my dad felt angry. Stalking about, he suddenly paused next to me. “Roger!” His voice sounded harsh, accusing. Me? What did I do? “If you ever get a girl pregnant, you’re gonna marry her!”
This proved to be the sum total of his wisdom on sex, his fatherly instructions to me in totality. Sex wasn’t a big topic of conversation in our house. Culturally speaking, most folks during the 1950s and 1960s felt quite uptight about it and everyone hoarded knowledge about sexuality as if it might be a deadly horrible embarrassing thing for their children to know about.
Revisiting this memory, I can’t recall where or when I learned the secret Facts of Life. I guess I could have read about it in a book. That’s possible; but I most likely heard the news from a friend – some wise kid who had somehow stumbled across the hidden truth.
So when I made love that first time I knew she could get pregnant and I knew that I didn’t want to become a father. So we didn’t take any more chances. So it was just that one lovely time with her.
When I touched your hands that night I meant it, sweet friend. I guess I’ll always love you for that moment whatever else. In our world at the fountain. In the diverging episodes that followed. In all the little quiet tales of that time that still go on without us. The things we said then, whatever we said... when I touched your hands I meant it.
It seems reasonable to suppose that people have been talking about sex for a long time, saying that females can get impregnated by males. Studying oral traditions, I often wonder how long this topical information has gotten passed from generation to generation.
Thinking this question again as I set down my thoughts here, naturally I decide to do a little research. I get out my copy of Timothy Taylor’s The Prehistory of Sex: Four Million Years of Human Sexual Culture (1996). When I first bought this book I skimmed it and read parts of it, and then I put it up on a high shelf and it closed its eyes and there it has rested for many years. I don’t remember much about the book.
I probably appreciated what Taylor said about race. In 1996-1997 I was beginning to struggle to fashion a personal response to what I’d been learning about race, so it probably meant something to me when I read his view that “the idea of racial purity... is a complete fiction” and so “[t]he proper study of race... involves the observation of trends rather than the definition of sharp boundaries.”
Looking now, I don’t like the way he gives the idea of race more of a history than it deserves, going so far as to insert it into Plato’s thoughts. Taylor’s judgment skates on very thin ice with this claim. I don’t agree with him, in fact. I’ve read here & there about the history of racial ideology, and Taylor doesn’t have much company in making this claim. Race is a new idea, not an old notion.
Anyway, it’s not easy to pin down Taylor about how long he thinks fathers have been withholding the awful truths of sex from their sons and how long their sons have been uncovering the truth by talking to wise friends. In a speculative tone, speaking of Paleolithic human lifeways, Taylor supposes it possible that the transmission of memory-based “cultural knowledge” could have “stayed fairly constant for over 15,000 years[.]” And he finally asserts that the “connection between semen and the successful birth of babies... must have been a matter of general knowledge... in every... human community that has ever existed[.]”
I presume that Taylor regards this opinion as patently uncontroversial. I think it seems very reasonable. I have the impression that most archeologists accept the idea that human communal social structures have existed for at least the preceding 40,000 years. This is a very long time for verbal records to convey information, don’t you think?
I think so. I’m impressed! With regard to sex, it means that for tens of thousands of years a specific piece of information has been carried along from generation to generation by word-of-mouth.
Moreover, I believe it is patently reasonable to speculate that sexual knowledge about semen, intercourse, and pregnancy is far older among humankind. But if Timothy Taylor thinks that one should be cautious about putting a date on the verbal durability of this bit of cultural knowledge, who am I to say otherwise?
Let’s just say that we’ve all been talking about sex for a very long time. At least 40,000 years. And probably much longer than that. With this logic in mind, I believe that oral traditions have the arguable capacity to transmit topical information for at least 40,000 years. I said this in something I published in 1997, talking about mortality and procreation: “[I]t would be unreasonable to presume that, at any point during the last 40,000 years or more, some people somewhere engaged in sexual relations, left descendants, and died without holding any discussions about death and sex.” The next time I touched on this subject was in a publication that appeared in American Antiquity (2000). I wrote pretty much the same views, but in greater detail:
Scholars generally do not see value in assessing oral traditions against an archeological record extending back much further in time than a thousand years or so, because it is widely assumed that some form of barrier or boundary prevents information from being effectively conveyed into the present from distant time periods. Although scholarship has established the malleable nature of verbal literature, it is difficult to find viable arguments that set justifiable limits of transmission time. Most scholars would be dismayed to discover that little or no support exists in scholarship that sustains their favored presumption on the limits of verbal durability, whether the presumed limit is set at 100 years or 10,000 years beyond the living memory of firsthand observers.
It is important to construct a reasoned basis for determining a possible chronological boundary for the maximum length of time that verbal information of any intricacy can be sustained. To date, where such boundaries have been drawn, their existence has relied largely upon the absence of demonstrable connections between oral traditions and other acceptable evidence about datable past events. A reasonable boundary for the long-term preservation of verbal literature might be linked to the beginnings of complex social interaction requiring the regulation of knowledge, and the oldest settings and events displayed in human origin stories are bounded by their artifactual nature as records generated in communal, multi-generational social settings.
On this basis, I speculate that the majority of oral traditions that contain historical information generated by firsthand observers can go back no farther in time than about 40,000 years, though this boundary must vary greatly from region to region. Many scholars suggest that human history over the last 40,000 years is primarily a story of sustained social complexity, and this argues strongly for the concurrent preservation of oral information. If the level of human social interaction up to a given point in time does not require the preservation and regulation of information, then there can be little need for the generation of a literature that provides a sense of group history.
I still think this sounds pretty logical today. Every so often I read someone’s response to my American Antiquity publication. Only once have I read a negative comment about my opinion on verbal durability, and it isn’t really worth repeating because it was more of a complaint about my false modesty than a real critique of any kind. Donning my brilliant cloak of rather flashy immodesty, in the scores of other published comments so far, all those other scholars seem to find favor with my way of thinking. So far, anyway; no one has given me a good reason to change my views.
Whatever other scholars might think of me and my deep thoughts, when I think about sex I feel gratified with the outcome, and I like my intellectual performance on the topic of endurance.
Well, it’s disappointing to know that not everyone goes along with me on these issues. When I originally formulated my thinking on durability, this happened when I wrote my master’s thesis at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I worked at first on this thesis with Vine Deloria Jr. It was during this period that I formulated my ideas on circa 40,000 as an arguable boundary for the transmission of historical information in verbal records.
It wasn’t easy to work with Deloria. He didn’t like my epistemological assumptions, my reliance on white science and archeology. And learning early on that I had my own ideas about things, he wasn’t any help to me after that. In fact, feeling dismayed with my thinking, he got moving with his own book on the topic. A year after I finished my thesis, Deloria’s Red Earth, White Lies appeared.
It’s a fascinating book. Nicely written; a culmination of his many years of thinking about origin stories and ancient history in America. It immediately won many fans among adherents to racial Indianhood by powerfully affirming the bond of racial Indianhood as a cogent articulation of social identity. Racial Indians, he argued, must believe in their Indian origin stories. To do so is to bond as Indians against white racial intellectual oppression.
I have the impression that adherents to racial Indianhood appreciate Red Earth, White Lies as a compelling justification for the doing of race and for the way it sets forth a few guidelines about what should constitute the tenets of racial Indianhood. Deloria’s influence upon racial Indians cannot be underestimated.
For this reason, I wonder what present-day adherents to racial Indianhood make of Deloria’s contention regarding the durability of oral tradition.
Deloria goes into detail about the intersection of geology and oral tradition. Then he concludes, “I personally cannot believe that any people could remember these geological events for tens of thousands of years.” But rather than use this disbelief-based analysis as a means of challenging historicity in verbal documents, he instead rejects science-based archeological dating methods and offers this opinion: “My conclusion is that these are eyewitness accounts but that the events they describe are well within the past 3,000 years.” He finishes by advising that we develop a “new scenario” for the creation of the geological features of the “Western Hemisphere.”
Indians, what do you believe?
Since I gave up race long ago, I don’t feel much pressure to go along with Deloria. And I’d go further. I find it hard to believe that he wrote this book and managed to keep his position in the history department at the University of Colorado. In fact, his peers at CU tried to get him to accept an honorary degree of some kind as his reward for rejecting science and archeology on the basis of race and racial loyalty.
To the degree that these circumstances stand as an oblique academic repudiation of my epistemological approach and the conclusions that flow thereof, this is the closest I’ve come to sensing real academic rejection of my work. I know that my small doings are really just a minor peripheral matter in the great scheme of things. But the logic of that whole Deloria situation stunningly reveals the power of racialism in the academy, the shaping of professional academic discourse about our human nature and human history. In my opinion, race does not help us in explaining the ancient past.
In the racial universe promoted by Vine Deloria, Indian people have been talking about things for only a few thousand years. I know he means to say that racial Indians have been passing along their oral traditions since the beginning of time immemorial, but his framing of the matter is clear. It is impossible for mere talk to hold water beyond “well within” three thousand years.
I suspect that Deloria is doing something interesting here. He’s making meaning out of what I call the problem of June 22, 1971. That is, memory is fallible and it fallibles away the past slowly. Beyond three thousand years, Deloria believes, the past is completely gone. If all the traditions of my life were to endure that long, to say June 23, 4971, suddenly people wouldn’t remember anything about how I got a new Air Force identification card, and it would only be a matter of a couple months until everyone forgot the night I first made love and how I felt warm and shy about it, and how I also felt a little worrisome concern.
In Deloria’s forced marriage of Time Immemorial to Time Terminator, not far beyond circa less than three thousand years, all the memorable things I’ve ever said will suddenly topple into forgetfulness. And up where they are, where people must surely still be pondering my words in the distant future... well, with regard to my spoken sayings, Vine Deloria predicts that people will look back to see me standing upon the precipitous ever-moving margin between the forgotten past and the remembered past.
And now it is about 14 years since Deloria drew his hourglass boundary line in the sands of human memory. Presumably, all the things that happened long ago during those ever-receding first 14 years of human history have slipped off the edge of remembrance into an unforgiving vacuum of forgetfulness.
I don’t mean to make so little of Vine Deloria Jr’s thinking on oral traditions. I like some of his ideas. But as long as the academy does race and permits race to influence and even set the academic agenda, I understand that I’d better not count on getting offered that honorary degree any time soon. Not until my crimes against the racial academic consensus have been... forgotten.
While I don’t mean to trivialize what this signifies, I do mean to say that I reject Deloria’s views.
And what about you? What do you make of forgetfulness?
Before I forget, I thought it might be useful for interested readers to read the following excerpt from my 1994 master’s thesis. It offers some deep thoughts on why 40,000 years offers a good starting point for framing the transmission of oral tradition:
Some oral traditions concern the origins of human cognitive awareness. One perspective on the development of human cognition, described below, argues for a recent setting for modern human abilities, which suggests to me the possibility that oral traditions about cognition may have something to do with the social environments of the Pleistocene world – environments that may serve to explain the very genesis of origin stories as a class of documents.
In a 1993 book (In Search of the Neanderthals, p. 198) Christopher Stringer and Clive Gamble published a chart showing that the beginnings of various forms of symbolic behavior among humans may cluster in time at least 40,000 years ago. Discussing the significance of these behaviors, Stringer and Gamble reject the notion that human creative consciousness arose over a lengthy period, and instead favor a sudden “enlightenment”:
The onset of symbolic behaviour can be compared to the flick of a switch or, as John Pfeiffer put it, a creative explosion. Symbolism involves making mental substitutions and appreciating associations between people, objects and contexts; once established, symbolism cannot simply be dropped or forgotten.
Pawnee, Yuma, Pima, Maya, and Judeo-Christian traditions about the “awakening” of the human mind could feature a Pleistocene setting, and all of these oral traditions conform to Stringer and Gamble’s “flick of a switch” in which humans 40,000 years ago suddenly began to appreciate “associations between people, objects and contexts....” This putative “advance” in human creativity, however, may simply be a reflection of the late Pleistocene development and spread of social settings dependent upon an already well-established ability to creatively deploy and retain complex verbal information of continuing social significance – a separate issue from arguments surrounding the evolution of hominid speech capabilities, the development of complex languages, and debates over levels of cognitive awareness.
Judging from the themes articulated in extant oral traditions, these social settings could have revolved around sexuality, mating/marriage patterns, genealogical inheritance issues, and the passing on of important social and technological knowledge to appropriate heirs. In the Yuma story (published by Natalie Curtis in The Indians’ Book, p. 564), the Creator commanded the people he had made to “[t]hink in your heart,” and to “[j]oin with one another, and bring forth children.” Then “when the people understood, they lived no more apart as man and woman, but joined each with the other, and reared children unto themselves.” After this, the Creator brought light into the dark world. In the Skidi Pawnee tradition about the origins of the first two people (published by George Dorsey and James R. Murie in Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee, p. 7): “The Lightnings struck about them. The Thunders roared. It seemed to awaken them. They understood.” Then: “After this they lay together,” and this sexual union further led to the initiation of other social behaviors. In the Zuni story, humans gradually “grew to know things” – a “change” in human awareness associated in some fashion with the social context of human sexuality.
In the Bible, Eve and Adam ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and immediately “the eyes of them both were opened; and they knew that they were naked....” The Maya book, Popol Vuh, discusses the creation of the first humans, and as with the Bible, the change in consciousness represents a “fall” from perfection, associated with the establishment of marriage between men and women. Sexuality and marriage are here presented as central to human identity and as behaviors that are appropriate spheres of social regulation. Hebrew, Mayan, and other human oral traditions place these behaviors in a historical context, helping to explain the origin of social identity.
The ability to creatively process and deploy information must have preceded the development of socially channeled regulation of information. The role of oral traditions in establishing and sustaining complex social interactions through time deserves recognition as a critical factor in explaining the late Pleistocene archeological record. Humans did not simply “wake up” – they were compelled to organize and preserve their intellectual expressions in socially coherent patterns. In short, the spread of the philosophy behind the axiom that “knowledge is power” may explain Stringer and Gamble’s apparent “explosion” of cognitive behaviors, and the social control of knowledge/information as an expanding adaptive strategy may have left a perceptible imprint on the archeological record and in human oral traditions.
This explanation would help account for aspects of the archeological record that are not explained by a “creative explosion.” Stringer and Gamble, as well as many other researchers, attribute this event to the improved cognitive abilities of Homo sapiens sapiens over other hominids – Neanderthals in particular. But the cognitive/creative abilities of Neanderthals may have equaled those of modern humans.
In a paper published in the Journal of Human Evolution in 1993, Brian Hayden, for example, has summarized evidence and arguments that support a view of Neanderthals as fully competent humans, displaying behaviors and technology that place them on a par with modern humans in terms of intellectual capabilities. Even Hayden, however, would support the presence of a quantitative difference reflecting “fundamental adaptive changes” in the archeological record for Europe after circa 25,000 BP, and to account for this he suggested a model proposing the development of “richer, more status competitive hunting/gathering societies” as an alternative to “the biological model.”
If oral traditions preserve some memory of these “changes,” however, then the social implications of relations between the sexes may offer a realm of investigation with a more direct bearing on the late Pleistocene “explosion” of human creativity and social complexity, perhaps more so than strictly economic spheres of human behavior. European cave art, for example, is viewed by Jean Clottes and Jean Cuortin (Archaeology, May-June 1993) as a complex form of ancient creative social expression that apparently involved fertility and human sexuality, with “hand-stencils” appearing about 27,000 BP and with depictions of animals persisting until about 12,000 years ago. In this case, child-bearing and artistic expression are significant as realms of social interaction – interactions based not on individual human desires to propagate genes and give free expression to private sexual interests, but more likely reflecting social interactions related in some manner to the maintenance of structured, complex social authority in these important areas of human lifeways. It is suggested here that oral traditions were a fundamental factor in such social developments, and some possibility exists that elements of verbal texts from this time have survived into the present.
A review of African, eastern Mediterranean, European, and other Old World creation stories reveals that these narratives often include two general themes: images of primordial waters that differ substantially from earth diver settings, and a fundamental concern for procreation. If earth diver stories derive their worldscape from a time when the coastlines of earth were gradually emerging from a lowering sea, then the theme of a primeval ocean in which the Creator established dry land might also have some connection to the late Pleistocene lowering of sea levels. In such a context, the preoccupation of Old World origin stories with sexuality, the inter-generational struggles of divine beings, and the procreative origins of the universe all might be best interpreted as a consequence of the new function of oral traditions in verifying and maintaining social order on the basis of regulating information for heirship purposes. The control of oral traditions must be seen as an inheritance issue, a source of power, authority, and communal well-being in a multi-generational setting – not simply linked to a need to keep track of kinship, but because verbal literature has the capacity for retaining valuable technological and other essential information. Without oral traditions, in fact, complex human societies would never have appeared anywhere on earth for sustained periods. Scholars who seek economic explanations for Pleistocene social complexity would do well to keep in mind that no economic system could have been developed or maintained without oral traditions.
Whatever the case, it is necessary to construct a reasoned (rather than an arbitrary) basis for determining a possible chronological boundary for the maximum length of time that complex verbal information can be sustained. To date, where such boundaries have been drawn, their existence has relied largely upon the absence of demonstrable connections between oral traditions and other acceptable evidence about datable past events. A more reasonable boundary for the long-term preservation of verbal literature must be linked to the beginnings of complex social interaction requiring the regulation of knowledge, and the oldest settings and events displayed in human origin stories are bounded by their artifactual nature as records generated in communal, multi-generational social settings.
On this basis, we can speculate that the majority of origin stories that contain historical information generated by first-hand observers can go back no farther in time than about 40,000 years, though this boundary must vary greatly from region to region. Many scholars suggest that human history over the last 40,000 years is primarily a story of sustained social complexity, and this argues strongly for the concurrent preservation of oral information. If the level of human social interaction up to a given point in time does not require the preservation and regulation of information, then there can be little need for the generation of a literature that provides a sense of group history.
Stringer and Gamble’s chart purporting to show the antiquity of symbolic behavior points to another significant question: What accounts for the persistence of specific behaviors over time in the archeological record? Instinct? Invention and reinvention? Non-verbal visual demonstration from generation to generation? Could the endurance of symbolic behavior be attributed to the use of verbal documents as a means to preserve and share information? We can apply these questions to the archeological record to gain some indication for the endurance of verbal information. Stringer and Gamble's chart asserted, for example, that archeological evidence exists for the production and use of “bone tools” for some 40,000 years. The utilization of such technology probably cannot be attributed to “instinct.” Various combinations of invention, reinvention, visual demonstration, and oral transmission of information probably do account for the fact that humans have used bone tools for 40,000 years or more.
It may be reasonable to suggest that, in the absence of written documents, the more complex the artifact, the greater the likelihood that verbal documents are involved in its persistence over time. In addition, where some indication of chronological continuity exists in the archeological record for a given behavior or artifact, then we must presume the concurrent involvement of verbal documents. It would be ridiculous to imagine, for example, that the Pawnees constructed circular earthlodge houses for more than 300 years without speaking a word to one another about what they were doing. The archeological record might thus provide an objective means of investigating the viability of oral documents over time, and changes in that record could indicate points in time where verbal records have potentially been lost or have undergone some sort of stress resulting in possible modification.
It is clear, moreover, that those oral records which have survived social and technological change, may not survive unscathed. If the oral traditions discussed in this study have a historical basis, then how did non-historical dimensions enter the settings? A fundamental principle might be elucidated here, based on the observable fact that verbal literature is a malleable medium of discourse conducted in highly specific cultural matrices, and changes in textual content from generation to generation undoubtedly occur, though the “rate” of such change may be quite variable.
We might understand some of these changes in terms of what I call a “Principle of Memorability.” In the Principle of Memorability, I propose a series of criteria or tests to help assess the presence of historical information in oral traditions presumed to concern ancient events.
On a case by case basis, three main possibilities can be said to exist. First, a given narrative may have been simply manufactured at some point in the near or distant past as an entertaining fiction. Second, a given narrative may offer an unadorned account of ancient historical events or settings, carefully preserved and handed down over unknown spans of time. Finally, a given narrative may contain some historical information that has become encrusted with fictional trappings. With this range of possibilities, how can we classify individual verbal texts about the ancient past? I have identified three tests as appropriate to this process:
Test 1: The oral tradition or element of a tradition should tend to fit into Jan Vansina’s classification (in Oral Tradition As History, 1985, p. 19-24) of a “group account” and/or “traditions of origin and genesis.” In terms of his “hourglass” pattern, the verbal information selected for analysis should clearly fall into the bottom portion of the hourglass; that is, it should exhibit only vague chronological indicators in its relationship to historical events mentioned in other oral traditions of the society in question.
Test 2: The oral tradition should be presented in its native context as a story about events that are presumed to be historical. In some cases, a specific element in an oral tradition might be presumed to be historical, while the tradition itself is viewed as fictional. For example, we might agree that Gone with the Wind is a work of fiction, whereas a major event described in the story – the Civil War – actually occurred.
Test 3: The historical content of verbal literature must be supported or verified through evidence gathered from independent, non-verbal sources, such as through archeological data, written records, or other accepted sources of evidence about the historical past. In other words, to the greatest degree possible, the historical messages in oral traditions must be generally consistent with constructions of the past that are based on non-verbal sources and are broadly viewed as acceptable (or at least theoretically possible) models of the historical past.
If oral traditions (or specific elements within the texts) pass these various tests, then a presumption in favor of historicity can exist. If an element of an oral tradition fails to pass one or more of the above tests, then some doubt of its historicity is justifiable for that particular element of the tradition; it could still be historical, but this must be proven through data or analysis not applied in the original evaluation. Though one element of a given text may fail these tests, other elements of the same oral tradition may yet pass and have some claim for historicity. In some cases, particular elements of oral traditions can pass these tests only if they are interpreted to some degree. In such instances, the presumption of historicity is then contingent upon justifying the best available interpretation from a range of choices, utilizing evidence and models from non-oral sources, with the rejected choices ranked as less historical.
The Principle of Memorability predicts that the transmission of historical oral traditions over long periods of time will inevitably introduce changes to texts involving one or more of the following factors: 1) elisions, omissions, or conflations will most likely serve to enhance the entertainment value or memorable quality of historical information; 2) the most memorable elements of a historical narrative may be emphasized at the expense of complex, detailed data; 3) data and stories that are viewed as important documents may incorporate elements that begin as speculative interpretation and end up as elements that enhance the entertainment value and color of the data/story; 4) only those historical stories that are seen as inherently valuable texts and display elements making the text more memorable will survive long transmission periods; and 5) information about the ancient past will more likely persist if it is encrusted with non-historical cultural meanings and narrative elements that are specific to transmitting societies. In short, for a verbal text on ancient historical events to endure for millennia, it must be colorful as well as explanatory.
The Principle of Memorability helps to explain why oral traditions generally do not respect the tendency of historians to hold forth at length in dry detail on obscure events of the past. Over time, densely “footnoted” verbal narratives must inevitably give way before the interpreted versions of storytellers who can enliven the dullest historical narrative by emphasizing its most memorable aspects.
In the same issue of American Antiquity in which my 2000 paper appeared, another scholar also had some interesting things to say about oral traditions, but he favored the view that oral traditions ought to be dismissed entirely from use by historians. He mentioned a 1997 publication of mine and didn’t characterize it very fairly. A few years later I noticed that he and one of his colleagues wrote to Congress to convince the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to also dismiss oral traditions, and they made no mention of my research.
In a book published in 2006, this same scholar over-inflated a few good points as a basis for giving the impression that oral traditions do not deserve to be treated as a very useful source of historical information. He modified his stance on oral traditions, however, agreeing with the new and growing scholarly consensus that it is possible for some information to get handed down over the last 1,000 years. But favoring a segregationist approach, he expressed a disturbing preference that oral traditions and archeology should be treated as separate, racially divided “ways of knowing.” He cited my 1997 and 2000 publications a couple times, but gave them no discussion.
In the age of dichotomized either/or culture war allegiances, it makes perfect sense to frame issues of scholarship as a matter of choosing sides and casting votes. This strategy exploits the fact that scholarship exists as both process and practice, and typical practice is too often a matter of democratic popularity rather than an outcome of logical process. With this social reality in hand, the author of that 2006 book intended to show why archeologists must vote against uncritical acceptance of Indian oral traditions as a source of historical evidence.
The problem with this assumption is that every serious scholar of oral documents already accepts the idea that critical analysis must form the basis of scholarly use of documents, whether written or oral. The challenge lies in developing useful tests and analytical procedures that can yield the most valid results. But seeing the matter as one of declaring allegiance to scholarly values versus declaring allegiance to racial Indian values, he argued that scholars should stay true to academic belief systems and racial Indians ought to confine their belief systems to the reservation.
One is either a committed scholar, or one is a committed Indian.
Framing his story this way, he sought to reify a faith-based belief in race as an appropriate guiding foundation for academic discourse. To be sure, the promotion of racialized discourse typifies archaeological practice in America. But even though belief in race operates as a central tenet of American archaeological practice, race is not justified in science. In short, we are urged to see his 2006 book as a defense of science and scholarship, but he does this by constantly promoting an anti-science acceptance of race.
Science and scholarship are valuable academic endeavors because they offer a transcendent perspective on human doings. In other words, these modes of inquiry establish a kind of common ground that crosses cultural boundaries. If any common ground exists among varying culture-specific oral traditions, and if any shared truths exist between the study of oral traditions and archaeological inquiry, conscientious scholarship ought to look for it.