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The Memory Code: how oral cultures memorise so much information

Ancient Celtic bards were famous for the sheer quantity of information they could memorise. This included thousands of songs, stories, chants and poems that could take hours to recite in full.

Today we are pretty spoiled. Practically the whole of human knowledge is conveniently available at our fingertips. Why worry about memorising something when we can simply Google it?

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The answer seems pretty evident when we go into a panic after losing our smartphones!

Long before the ancient Celts, Aboriginal Australians were recording vast scores of knowledge to memory and passing it to successive generations.

Aboriginal people demonstrate that their oral traditions are not only highly detailed and complex, but they can survive – accurately – for thousands, even tens of thousands, of years.

Yet I struggle to remember what I did last Tuesday. So how did they do it?

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Researcher Lynne Kelly was drawn to this question while investigating Aboriginal knowledge about animals for her PhD.

It was evident to Kelly that Aboriginal people catalogued huge scores of information about animals – including species types, physical features, behaviour, links to food and plants – and wondered how they do it.

A memorable thing

Aboriginal elders explained to her how they encode knowledge in song, dance, story and place. This led to a theory that may revolutionise archaeology.

It has long been known that the human brain has evolved to associate memory with place, referred to as the method of loci. This means that we associate memory with a location. How often do memories come flooding back to us when we visit our childhood haunt?

Loci (Latin for “place”), can refer to landscape features, ceremonial sites, abstract designs – anything with distinct features where information can be linked to memory.

Kelly developed this into a framework that may explain the purpose of famous sites such as Stonehenge, the Nasca lines and the Moai of Easter Island.

The meanings of these sites have been a topic of controversy for decades. What Kelly proposes in her new book The Memory Code is that sites such as Stonehenge and the Nasca lines are actually memory spaces.

Knowledge is power

In oral cultures, knowledge is power. It is imperative that the most important knowledge be maintained and preserved by a few select custodians who have proven their worth.

In Indigenous cultures, elders who have passed the highest levels of initiation hold the deepest levels of knowledge.

This is reflected in ceremonial sites where knowledge is passed down. Aboriginal initiation sites include a secret area where the most sacred knowledge is discussed.

We also see this at Stonehenge, where the perimeter of standing stones shields the centre of the ring, where the most important aspects knowledge are passed on through ceremony.

These sites include features that are unique in shape and form. At Uluru, the Anangu elders associate every crevice, bump, and notch around the perimeter of the mountain with knowledge that is stored to memory.

Star maps and memory

But loci is not only linked to places you can touch or visit. Indigenous people also use the stars as memory spaces.

For example, groups of stars can represent features on the landscape. Aboriginal Law Man Ghillar Michael Anderson explains how the Euahlayi people were able to travel long distances for trade and ceremony.

The Euahlayi would memorise star maps at night and learn the songs that talk about their relationship to the land. Each star was associated with a landscape feature, such as a waterhole.

Later in the year, they would sing the song as they travelled across country by day. These songline routes became the foundation of some of our highway networks that criss-cross the country.

Rather than navigating by the stars, the stars themselves serve as a memory space.

Written by 

Senior ARC Discovery Early Career Research Fellow, Monash University

The Conversation

The Conversation

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.
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