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Sharing Oral Traditions

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For the vast majority of human history, the only way people could transmit information has been by speaking, listening, and remembering. Indeed, the capacity for speech and the connected capacities for learning and remembering might be thought of as the defining elements of human consciousness, shared perhaps with other, now extinct, members of the hominid lineage but not shared with any other existing species. Through speech, humans did more than coordinate cooperation necessary for individual and group survival; they transmitted knowledge. They taught new generations techniques and ideas. They developed the ability to use abstract and theoretical thinking that allowed them to adapt to new circumstances. They created moral codes that regulated behavior between genders, between generations, between ranks, and between communities, and devised elaborate justifications for these codes. They speculated about the sublime question of the reason for the existence of it all and made up great cosmological explanations that usually placed humanity at the center of some sort of creation. For the vast majority of the at least 100,000 years that Homo sapiens has walked the earth (and perhaps longer if earlier hominid species had the power of speech), humans transmitted all of this orally. It would seem then that speaking and listening are the "natural" way humans learn.

Humans used several techniques to help them remember what they had learned. They created objects that served to remind them of the spirits that watched over them and needed succor. They made images of those that had gone before. They portrayed their fears on available rock surfaces. Perhaps most importantly, and in some ways seemingly universally, they used meter and rhyme in language, pitch and syncopation in sound, noises created by the ingenious noisemakers they devised, and the movement of bodies in time to music to remind them of what was important to know.

What they needed to know and to remember, though, changed over time. Humans learned to forget that which seemed no longer important. Knowledge flowed seamlessly from past to present, from the ancestors to the living, from God or the gods to the mortal. What was told always sought relevance with what the hearers of the words lived.

Sometime about five thousand years ago, in Mesopotamia and Egypt, some human societies began to use symbols etched in clay tablets, painted on papyrus scrolls, or carved into stone to record at first basic data. Eventually people developed the ability to use writing to capture the most complex of abstractions and the most beautiful of poetic expressions. Gradually literacy developed in other places and spread to still others. Almost everywhere it was associated with power. Those in power wielded the written word as one of the tools of domination. They determined what was truth, what was history, what God wanted people to do or be. While the struggles among the literate over these issues are the stuff of literate history, for most people knowledge continued to be transmitted orally. Even with the development of printing, the rise of mass literacy, and the spread of "universal" education, many elements of culture and community remain expressed primarily if not wholly in oral form. Especially among communities in some way or another disempowered by the apparatus of literate knowledge, oral tradition remains an important means of transmitting knowledge and maintaining social solidarity.

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