Storytelling has always been an essential component of the human experience. Humans have an innate desire to tell and listen to stories. A child asks her parent for a story before bedtime. A teacher tells his students a story to help make a lesson stick. Friends share advice by summarizing past experiences with each other. Stories entertain and educate us. They help us relive the past and prepare for the future.
From Caves to Epic Poems
The first example we have of human storytelling is on the walls of caves in Chauvet, France. In 1994, archeologists discovered paintings that depict various animals- deer, lions, wooly mammoths- as well as the eruption of a volcano. Researchers believe the inhabitants of the cave valued these illustrated stories so highly that they considered them to have sacred or magic properties. Carbon dating places these illustrations around 36,000 years old.
The ancient Egyptians took storytelling to the next level. Their hieroglyphic language, a series of pictographic symbols, is widely considered to be history’s first example of a written language. Developed around 5,000 years ago, this writing system allowed them to communicate more detailed ideas. Decoding this alphabet revealed ancient Egyptian stories about life at the time, beliefs about the afterlife, kings, wars and plague. The stories also revealed the evolving complexities of storytelling, such as humor and satire.
Around 2,700 years ago, Homer united the ancient Greeks with his epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey. These stories were recorded and distributed to the surrounding city-states, and have been credited for establishing the Greek culture. It is highly likely that this was the first time humans realized the fantastic power contained by a good story!
“If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” – Isaac Newton
Storytelling Meets Technology
As history progressed, humans took and improved upon the stories written by the generations before them. The ways and types, along with the manner of telling stories became numerous. Shakespeare captured the imagination of the masses with his plays. In 1556 the first newspaper was published in Venice, covering the economic, political and military happenings of the time. Improvements in printing press technology and the spread of community theater allowed a wider circulation of stories and ideas. Then the 20th century arrived bringing the radio, movies, and TV. These media opened up a whole new world of ways to tell and share stories, removing any barriers that lack of education and an inability to read previously put forth. Then, of course, came the Internet and the digital age of storytelling and idea sharing.
While the complexity, styles, manners, and themes have changed over history, storytelling has been around since the first prehistoric humans were able to point and grunt. Whether they’re creating a culture and unifying a nation or lulling a child to sleep, never underestimate the power of a well-told story.