TimJN1 – Bradshaw Art – Bradshaw rock paintings in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, taken at a site off Kalumburu Road near the King Edward River. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

How should we be human?

After surviving, this must have been one of the first questions our earliest ancestors asked themselves. It might have been asked around the same time that they wondered where they had come from and how their part of the world originated. It seems likely that the stories they evolved to explain what we generally think of as ‘creation’ also included guidelines for living together and for coexisting with the animals, plants and natural phenomena of the planet.

This consciousness may have evolved around the same time as language and the ability to shape it into narratives that could be told by one to another – and another and another, in a multi-generational chain of tellings. When writing evolved, those stories, perhaps thousands of years old by then, could be written down. They were. The earliest written works we have are tales of unknowable forces, titanic beings and tectonic configurations of earth, sky, land and sea. They are also tales of interaction between gods, monsters, demigods, heroes and, eventually, everyday mortals.[1]

Creation stories were told probably by all peoples wherever they came together into communities to get on with the business of living and dying. As well as engaging with the unknowable cosmic conundrums plumbed by all origin myths and, later, by organised religions, people needed to develop ways of getting on and getting by. This meant figuring out what worked, what did not and agreeing on the rules for living together.

How should procreation be managed? The universal human problem of ensuring a degree of separation in the gene pool was worked out and encoded in stories.

What should be done with the aged? Despatched when they could no longer contribute to the tribe, clan, or supportive group in which they had lived out their lives? Or did they have something unique to provide to the group? Wisdom, perhaps?

What is fair, equitable? What is not? Who should decide, and how?

Evil? What did that consist of and how could it be avoided or otherwise managed?

The unknowable. In deep time, pretty well everything in the natural world and beyond – including death. And then what?

These, and other fundamentals, were dealt with through narratives – myths, legends, fables, ‘fairy’ tales, as we now term them. Not only were stories like these evolved, told, written and ultimately printed around the world, they tended to be remarkably similar to each other. Mystical beings made the world. Gods – or a god – ran the afterlife. Heroes brought fire, descended to the underworld, or slew monsters, mostly to the ultimate benefit of their people. A great flood drowned the earth. Evil spirits abounded. Devils and demons had to be outwitted. Animals, places and everything else had to be named and their characteristics accounted for. People did stupid things. People did wicked things. Sometimes they were held to account and received their just desserts. Often, whether saints or sinners, the protagonists of stories were transformed. Or not. Life not only had to be lived, it had to be storied. 

These processes, at once banal and profound, have been going on in storytelling since as long as we know.[2] As well as their speech, people hold onto the tales carried within their language. Many of these are carried on the tongue rather than the page. But even where oral communication has been largely replaced by print and visual media, the same old tales continue to be told in books, films, digital games. [3]

How old are these stories? The answer to that question may be ‘as old as time’, at least human time.

Using the Gaia space telescope, astronomers studying the constellations and how they appear in various mythologies across the world have recently added further evidence for the antiquity of story. The star pattern known as the Pleiades was the object of mythmaking in many ancient cultures, many of which refer to seven stars that make it up. Today, we can only see six stars, but 100 000 years ago, seven stars would have been visible, strongly suggesting that the Australian Aboriginal Seven Sisters songline, the Greek story of the seven daughters of Atlas and similar storylines in African, Native American and Asian traditions had their origins one hundred millennia ago.[4]

Could these stories possibly be true? Do they somehow record historical, or even pre-historical, events? 

The truth that western scholars sought, and mostly still do, is an objective reality based on verifiable evidence. That version is generally given in a linear sequence, originally through chronicles, later in histories, that present a more or less coherent narrative of events through time. But this is a very European notion. Elsewhere in the world, time is not streaming from past to present and into the future. 

The Australian Aboriginal ‘Dreamtime’ (a western attempt to describe it), like many other indigenous mythologies and spiritualities, exists in an ‘always-ever’ form in which these neat chronological divisions do not exist. The past is here now and the future is held in the past, all of which could well be happening right now. And is. I have been told by Aboriginal people of evil night beings who lurk at a particular location. The traditional owners of what is now known as ‘Nyungar country’ in Western Australia, will not go near that place after dark. 

Nor are stories of the past necessarily told through one voice or perspective. The people who migrated south through the tenth to thirteenth centuries into what is now Mexico evolved a culturally diplomatic form of storytelling that made space for the interpretations of different, previously warring groups who were now allied through intermarriage and common interest. When the stories of these people, who we know as ‘Aztecs’, were told, different speakers could stand up and tell their version of particular, usually traumatic, events. 

In these tellings, chronology had little purchase as stories flowed between different periods, often in what western scholars perceived as confusing repetition and so, as evidence of degraded or incoherent and fragmentary forms of oral transmission. Modern scholarship has revealed that repetition was a necessary feature of Aztec historical storytelling. Their historical truth was a communal, consensual one, a composite of the various and often conflictual meanings of what had happened to them.[5]

Humankind’s body of story remains in obscure publications and vast archives around the world, many of which are not even catalogued, let alone fathomed.[6] These narrative treasures, known and still unknown, are the fundamental cultural heritage of humanity. To allow them to languish is to abandon the roots of our being and the lessons they contain for living and dying on planet earth. Confronting though it may be, this is the human condition.

Scientists also speculate that the very act of telling stories, of whatever kind, is itself essential to being human and surviving. Our brains process stories, whether ‘true’ or ‘fictional’, in ways that we find compelling as we try and understand the world and our place in it. Through telling and retelling ‘the metanarrative of human culture spins a half-real, half-fictional reality’.[7] Through this reality we achieve empathy, the state that allows us to share and comprehend the emotions of others as presented in stories that rehearse the primalities of existence. Fundamentally, these are benefits of cooperating with each other and understanding the consequences of not doing so.[8]

It seems that we instinctively respond to the deep meanings within these narratives. Anthropologist and author David Bowles recounts how his study of the Nahuatl indigenous Mexican myth brought him to a sense of self through an understanding that the Aztec, and all humanity, inhabit ‘a liminal space between creation and destruction, order and chaos’, understanding this fundamental equilibrium  is ‘A gift bequeathed by the ancients to all of us, their biological and spiritual children alike.’[9] We can’t all learn to speak Nahuatl, but we can read the stories in translation and gain something of Bowles’s insight into self and the cosmos.

In keeping with the reworking of the past to present different views, traditional stories are frequently reinterpreted by fiction writers, especially from a feminist perspective. Psychologists and others involved in various forms of therapy are drawing on ancient traditions to help patients with a range of psychological, emotional and other problems.[10]

The meanings and purposes of the tales may differ between cultures, often in ways that outsiders cannot comprehend. But the global reverberation of the same narratives told across time and space resonates of common concerns beyond specific periods, places and storytellers. Story and storying confirm the essential oneness of human beings, now scientifically proven by genetics, with any two individuals differing by a negligible measure of DNA. [11]

* Referencing Deborah Bird Rose, Dingo Makes Us Human: Life and Land in an Australian Aboriginal Culture (1992)

[1] McCarthy, J., Sebo, E., & Firth, M. (2023). ‘Parallels for cetacean trap feeding and tread-water feeding in the historical record across two millennia’. Marine Mammal Science, 1– 12.

[2] Smith, D., Schlaepfer, P., Major, K. et al. ‘Cooperation and the evolution of hunter-gatherer storytelling’. Nat Commun 8, 1853 (2017).

[3] Claudia Schwabe (ed), The Fairy Tale and Its Uses in Contemporary New Media and Popular Culture, Special Issue of Humanities 2016, 5, 81; doi:10.3390/h5040081,, accessed June 2017.

[4] Efrosyni Boutsikas, Stephen C. McCluskey and John Steele (eds), Advancing Cultural Astronomy: Studies in Honour of Clive Ruggles, Springer International Publishing, 2021.

[5] Camilla Townsend, ‘How Aztecs Told History’, Aeon, and Camilla Townsend, Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs, Oxford University Press, New York, 2019.

[6] A case in point is the discovery of a field collection of tales made in Germany at the time the Grimms were busy elsewhere, see Franz Xaver von Schonwerth (Author), Erika Eichenseer (Editor), Engelbert Suss (Illustrator), Maria Tatar (Translator), The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales, Penguin, 2015. Many of the stories are like those collected and/or anthologised by the Grimms, yet they are given without editing and are often darkly or perplexingly different to those that have become canonical through the unbalancing influence of the heavily edited tales of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

[7] Le Hunte, Bem & Golembiewski, ‘Stories have the power to save us: A neurological framework for the imperative to tell stories’, Arts and Social Sciences Journal, 5(2), January 2014.

[8] Singh, Manvir. “The Sympathetic Plot, Its Psychological Origins, and Implications for the Evolution of Fiction.” OSF Preprints, 23 June 2019. Web; Manvir Singh, ‘Orphans and Their Quests’, Aeon,

[9] David Bowles, ‘Learning Nahuatl, the Flower Song, and the Poetics of Life’, Aeon,

[10] The works of Carl Jung on ‘archetypes’ and of Joseph Campbell on the hero’s journey are the most influential. For other theories of heroic narrative and its significance see Robert A Segal (ed), In Quest of the Hero, Princeton University Press, 1990 for a survey of the main theories up to the 1990s.

[11] Gaia Vince, ‘Ancient Yet Cosmopolitan’, Aeon, The lack of genetic diversity in human populations also gives the lie to any pretence that Europeans are more intelligent, moral or more evolved than any other cultures.