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Oral Traditions

Oral Tradition And The Search For The African Past, Oral Traditions As A Source And As A Method Of Historical Construction

The challenge of reconstructing the history of nonliterate or preliterate societies makes necessary the study and interpretation of oral traditions. Many such societies have gone to great extents to preserve and transmit the knowledge of their past in oral forms. The phrase oral traditions refers to folklore, legends, tales, taboos, and stories through which knowledge of the past is preserved and transmitted from one generation to another. Oral traditions must be differentiated from oral evidences, which are experiential. Such traditions record the origins, movements, and settlements of peoples; the genealogy and chronology of royalty, priests, and citizens; and the important landmarks in history. Besides, much oral tradition can be gleaned from surviving cultural practices such as burials, rituals, games, and language.

Virtually all societies, including literate ones, have depended on oral traditions for the reconstruction of their histories at one point or other. "Once upon a time" or "long, long ago" are the usual introductions to the oral narratives that European and Native American children heard throughout their childhood and early adolescence. The knowledge of pre-literate historical periods is derived in some form from oral accounts. As writing and documentation developed and literacy became widespread, however, this genre of historical recollection became less important in the literate societies. This is because of the presumed unreliability of oral traditions as compared with documents. Indeed, by the nineteenth century, a form of historiographical tradition had become established in Europe that held that only written sources could produce historical reliability. This was not unconnected to the development of archives and the documentary traditions of the medieval European courts. Europe-based historians of the nineteenth century tended to consider that nonliterate societies had no history.

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