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The only known picture of novelist Jane Austen, drawn by her sister Cassandra

birth of the modern novel—part 1, beginnings

A modern novel is a fictitious prose narrative (i.e., a concocted story or imaginary account) of considerable length and complexity portraying characters and usually presenting a sequential organization of actions and scenes.

A well-constructed story fitting this description—that is, a typical modern novel—is not just a thrown-together hodgepodge of literary odds and ends; it's a carefully devised, unique form of literature drawing upon specific genres, linguistic structures, and compositional techniques. Works like these conform to widely accepted sets of writing guidelines, literary and linguistic conventions and traditions, and writing styles, some of which are "official" and some informal.

The current body of modern novels is an amazing collection that includes brilliant authors and masterpieces, works exhibiting striking beauty and significance that sparkle with artistic excellence. Compared with other kinds of important literary works that tell storiesand there are many of them—modern novels account for an amazing number of the greatest books ever written.

These rules, methods, practices, and other conventions for constructing novels work and work well, not just for writing novels, but also for composing other literary forms. They have made a spectacular contribution not only to novels, but also to literature as a whole.

The modern novel literary form has just experienced its two hundredth birthday. Two hundred years may seem like too long a time to call the modern novel modern, but modern is a relative term. Considering how long mankind has been telling stories that are not novels, even at two centuries the modern novel is a relatively recent development.

Yes, people have been telling stories for well over two hundred years, for almost as long as anyone can say with certainty—for literally tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of years before the modern novel emerged on the scene, and possibly even before that. So from an historical perspective, the first modern novels were a brand new (or novel) form of literature because the way they told stories was quite different from all those older kinds of stories that had preceded them.

And modern novels are still quite different in the same way today as they were when they were invented. Remarkably, the modern novel's literary form—the novel's structure—hasn't fundamentally changed since it was conceived; it's as fresh and vibrant as ever. Stories being told today with modern novels have basically the same literary formats as existed two centuries ago. Yet those penned in the twenty-first century are just as right for their time as those penned in the past.

The novel is a unique form of literature, but literary and linguistic resemblances between modern novels and other kinds of stories are strong. Because of these similarities, innumerable literati mistakenly identify many of the other kinds of stories as novels when in fact their correspondence with actual novels is at base only superficial. For example, sometimes literary authorities erroneously identify a work as a novel merely because it's a long fictional prose story.

Unfortunately, because of superficial resemblances like this one, some of these misconceived pronouncements by literati pass muster with people who don't know any better. Because other kinds of long fictional stories are erroneously called novels, the key literary and linguistic distinctions between them and true modern novels tend to become blurred or even to be lost entirely, sometimes with damaging consequences.

And it gets worse. Some literati who know better deliberately call a work a novel because the term novel has recognition value for an audience when the valid literary name for a type of work does not. Or they call it a novel because the scholarly literary name for the work is impracticably long and cumbersome, or because it seems pompous or pretentious. The word novel simplifies matters for them.

And to their credit, some cognoscenti do try to explain why a work that seems to be a novel is really something else, but then they confuse the job of explaining why. Instead of clearing matters up, they only muddle them further.

Literary experts like these are partially correct. A goodly number of ancient stories do superficially resemble modern novels in one or more ways. But that fact alone doesn't make them novels. How could they be novels if they were created before the modern novel literary form was invented?

Of course, the mere fact that a story is not told the way a novel would be told does not by itself denigrate its literary quality or value. Different ways of telling stories fill different needs and satisfy different purposes. There are plenty of good reasons why other storytelling literary forms have their own literary characteristics, writing styles, language conventions, and points of view. Each one offers writers and readers its own strengths and weaknesses. In fact, there is no single best way to tell a story; best ways depend on the nature of the story, the intended audience, and a host of other factors.

Further, a host of stories told by non-novel literary formats and genres are superb works of art in their own right and would be miscast if recounted in novel form. Ageless masterpieces such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey are just two examples: their age has no bearing on their greatness. They originated thousands of years ago, perhaps in the Late Bronze Age, yet where will you find stories with more excitement, more passion, and more adventure? But these two great stories are epic poems penned in dactylic hexameter; they're not novels by a long shot, and they were originated to be heard, not read. Translations of these great poems into prose forms are dramatically dissimilar works of art.

Tens of thousands of pre-novel stories were composed in Ancient Egypt and Assyria, the Classical era, the ancient Orient, and the Western Renaissance. And other non-novel stories have been  composed in subsequent centuries, and they're being composed right up to the present day. Some of these early story forms are dead; no one writes them anymore. But others are still very much alive. Skilled and respected contemporary authors originate their own stories using some of these non-novel literary archetypes; they emulate them in their own original works for legitimate, quite relevant literary reasons.

What, then, are the literary and linguistic traits that make modern novels truly different from all these other ways to tell stories, and special? What are their technical specs: their literary forms, genres, language characteristics, and other properties? What is it about modern novels that makes them especially effective and meritorious? When, where, how, why, and by whom were they originally conceived?

Although fundamental and revelatory, valid answers to questions like these are not widely disseminated or understood by the general reading public, a situation that often works to the modern novel's detriment. But fortunately, the pages that follow have much to say about these matters. They attempt to do away with some of the basic misconceptions and oversights cited above and to clear up prevalent misunderstandings about the modern novel's name and natureto reveal how and why the modern novel is so novel. Pages that follow identify the modern novel's parentage and heritage; they let you peak under its dustcover to see what makes this unparalleled literary form so remarkable.

If you already have clear answers to questions like these about the modern novel—if you harbor no doubts about conventional literary wisdom concerning the novel—our hat's off to you. Congratulations!

But just look around. You may be surprised at how many modern novel readers—even those who praise and devour them—harbor only a smattering of knowledge about how this extraordinary literary form got started and about what makes it so wonderful. They may love the books they read, but without this sort of knowledge at their fingertips it's doubtful whether they can fully appreciate the substance of what they read or why they they find the novel art form so appealing.

On the other hand, if you're not one of the privileged few who are already familiar with this history—and if you're now ready to ameliorate this misfortune—Electricka's Muse Of Literature and Electricka's Muse Of Language Arts, her two Muses who sponsor this feature, invite you to read on. They bid you "forge ahead!" in the pages that follow.

If you do decide to read on, you're in for a treat. Below you'll find the authentic story of when, where and how the first true novel—the first modern novelwas created. This story is an adventure in its own right, a tale about tales.

Although the story of the modern novel's origin is nonfictional, in its own way it's no less fascinating or less exciting than the kind of fiction one expects from a novel. As with a true modern novel, the tale about how modern novels came to be is itself a narrative of considerable length and complexity portraying characters and usually presenting a sequential organization of actions and scenes.

Ready to forge ahead? If so, Bon Voyage! The Muses hope that you will be pleasantly surprised by what you see about the novel's history and prehistory, and pleased by how much this knowledge will add to your arsenal of literary attack tools, to your reading gratification, and to your lifelong reading experience.

table of contents

There's a lot going on in the feature we call Birth of the Novel. To get oriented and see what's ahead, we suggest that you open and view this Table Of Contents now. Use it to identify sections of special interest that you want to read first or others that you want to skip. And if you don't finish this entire feature now, plan to return to the Table later. Just find the name of the section where you left off and tap or click its name to skip directly to it.

About this  feature

As just noted, Electricka's Muse Of English Literature and Muse Of Language Arts are joint presenters of this feature. They're collaborating because they're mutually affected by it. They've agreed to share this pleasure and responsibility because the subject is very significant for each of them and because they want to get everything just right.

The Muse Of Literature emphasizes the novel's linguistic, literary, and technical aspects—the speculative and analytical point of view usually taken by students, scholars, critics, and theoreticians. On the other hand, The Muse Of Language Arts emphasizes the novel's practical aspects—the doer's and user's point of view taken by authors and readers. The two Muses approach the birth of the novel from these two different angles. By combining their different approaches to the novel, each point of view is honored, neither is overlooked, and both are interrelated.

Charles Dickens

No doubt some of you reading this feature now are devoted Electricka fans; you even may be among those who have previously requested a treatment on this subject. Because of your continuing interest in great literature and your loyalty to Electricka and her Muses, the two Muses have extended themselves especially on your behalf to make this sketch worthy of your time and attention. This is but one small way for them to express their gratitude for your loyalty.

On the other hand, you may be a first-time arrival at Electricka's web site. If first-timer fits you, you may want to consider familiarizing yourself with Electricka and her web site as a whole before starting down the path to the birth of the modern novel, the one that you are now treading.

If you do decide to explore elsewhere at this web site first, you'll gain context that will help you benefit from what you read here. For example, you now may be wondering about the two Muses and what they have to do with novels; but you don't know that now, do you?

If you do decide to delve elsewhere at Electricka's site first, don't forget to return here later. But if you don't have the luxury, time, or inclination to explore elsewhere before you begin here, feel free to dive in here right now. You'll gain greatly even without any additional background, and you can always explore the rest of this site later.

Oh, and please keep in mind that this sketch spans ancient history up to the time of the modern novel's invention, but has little to offer about what happened to the novel's literary form after that propitious event. That's another long story in its own right.


Who? What? When? Where? and Why? These are the questions news reporters pursue when they snag a story. The same questions apply to novels. They're among the many grand questions the Muses set out to answer here.

The story of the modern novel's birth begins during earliest recorded times, and proceeds without letup to the present day. The modern novel—that is, the kinds of novels written in the era in which we're living—represent the culmination of this long process.

An untold number of steps had to be taken before anything resembling a modern fictional narrative could be written. Today's modern novel marks the climax of hundreds and even thousands of years of creative experimentation with telling stories that led up to it. Even though the modern novel was invented hundreds of years ago, the modern novel itself is so recent a development that by comparison with its forefathers it's still an infant.

As a result of these millennia of experimentation, today's modern novels are far superior, more sophisticated vehicles for telling certain kinds of complex stories than predecessor fictional prose narratives. They're more aesthetic, effective, artistic, and creative literary works that differ from other literary forms in major technical, stylistic, and linguistic ways.

While the millennia that led up to the modern novel marched by, tens and hundreds of thousands (perhaps even millions) of written stories were created by writers. They were carved in aboriginal stone, scratched into soft clay, etched onto papyrus scrolls and abandoned in earthen jars, stroked onto loose paper or parchment sheets, or printed and bound into in quartos or books stored on library shelves. Today they're also stored as magnetic spots on storage media and read as streams of electrons projected onto screens.

Despite this vast literary production, the original sources of fictional story-telling are virtually all unknown or can only be surmised at best; practically nothing is known with surety about what actually happened to bring about these first ancient outpourings of man's creative literary imagination.

Herman Melville

We can surmise, however, that these transmogrifications brought about both the ways early mankind understood and fabricated stories and the ways it told and recounted them. Today we have no way of knowing with confidence how, why, or exactly when mankind's mental faculties changed; but we can guess that somehow at least a single human brain was suddenly altered, or possibly a few tribal brains, over a relatively brief period, and the rest followed naturally.

What produced these transmogrifications? Was it merely that one brain changed, or several? Were the changes progressive or instantaneous? Were they spread between tribes and grow or did they pass from one generation to the next within single tribes, by means of genetic inheritance? What role did experience play? What generational mutations occurred?

The birth of the modern novel was a quite different matter. History does permit us to weave its threads into a protracted but relatively precise story of how the modern novel was invented. This is possible because its invention occurred much, much later, in a comparatively recent, brief, and well-recorded period lasting about a hundred or so years. Once the pattern composed of these threads is woven, it's reasonable to conclude that the modern novel and it's immediate predecessors were invented by a collection of identifiable writers working mostly but not entirely independently of one another in England in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The first batch of novel authors were motivated to develop the novel form because they felt the need for a unique literary medium that would enable them to tell the new and different kinds of stories they wanted to relate in unparalleled ways. They found existing narrative literary forms and genres inadequate for describing the extraordinary events unfolding around them and for expressing fresh ideas circulating through their minds. They required new literary forms, writing styles, and techniques in order to achieve unprecedented expressive literary results and to affect audiences in unconventional and unprecedented ways.

But effective and well-focused though they were, their innovations were not consciously or selfishly contrived. They flowed naturally from what they were trying to achieve like the ink that flowed from their pens.

So compelling were the first modern novels devised by these original novelists, writers who followed on their heels could hardly help but perceive the constructive opportunities they afforded them; they couldn't resist a myriad of temptations to adopt and adapt the newly-invented novel form to meet their own authorship needs going forward. Thus, it wasn't long after that before the novel form grew into what it has become today: a large and growing body of works belonging to and comprising a literary tradition.

Not only did these early writers invent the initial version of the modern novel, which is comprised by a set of closely related literary structures; they also devised many of its various alternate writing styles, genres, and linguistic techniques. That is, they gave birth both to the novel form itself and to optional ways to write it. New genres, literary subforms, and writing techniques were coined concurrently.

The novel is so flexible, useful, and powerful a literary form, it's now a permanent fixture in literary circles in cultures spread around the world. And the form is still being adjusted and augmented. Authors are adapting it to fit changing needs even as you read this, and undoubtedly the modern novel will continue to grow to express new situations and to serve new purposes as world conditions and thought change.

  • In the twentieth century, several new novel forms were invented by extraordinarily creative and original authors. They illustrate that the novel literary form is still fresh, alive, and adaptive, even after centuries of development. To explore these new novel forms, visit The Muse Of Language Arts feature titled Novel Novels: tap or click here.
Honoré de Balzac

Not just the novel, but a great number of other kinds of fictional and nonfictional prose narrative works have appeared since the creation of the modern novel in England. Many of these other kinds of narratives have adopted and adapted forms, genres, writing styles, and literary techniques from the modern novel. Thus, the modern novel has influenced the entire field of contemporary modern storytelling, not just novel writing alone. It has played a decisive role in defining the nature of creative writing in the modern world as a whole, not just in fictional genres, but in nonfictional genres as well. And it continues to do so.

Today the modern novel literary form is pervasive; it's written, sold, bought, and read in vast quantities in almost every corner of the earth. Because of this universality, knowing how modern novels came to be opens doors to an appreciation of fictional and nonfictional writing as a whole. Understanding the birth, lineage, and descent of the modern novel is a prerequisite for fully comprehending modern fiction and its relationship with creativity. It also helps illuminate ways in which a writer's fictional creativity can be fostered.

nature & history of the true noveloverview

Whether written a hundred years ago or last week, all varieties of true modern novels tell a very long fictitious story in a complex way using a prose narrative writing style.

Prose is the ordinary form of spoken or written language, without metrical structure; it's distinguished from poetry or verse. A narrative is another word for a story, an account of events or experiences and the like. It's a series of related happenings concerning people or things. It's another name for a story.

To qualify as a narrative for a novel, a story must be a special kind of narrative: it must be fictitious, complex, and take a long time to tell. It must recount a logical sequence of related events, happenings, or experiences concerning people and things.

All true novels share these literary characteristics in common, whenever they were written or by whom, whatever the period in which they're set, whatever their genre.

The first true modern novel literary form did not come into being until early in the nineteenth century. Soon after that, long complex fictional prose stories adhering to this form became preferred by authors and readers alike.

The first true novels were preceded by a number of other kinds of long and complicated fictional prose narratives that were not true novels but which resembled true novels in one or a few respects. Because they resembled true novels to some extent they are best thought of as near novels.

Some near novels were contemporaneous with true novels, while the majority preceded them starting from about the end of the first quarter of the eighteenth century. Thus the first of these near novels predated the appearance of the first groups of true novels by at least half a century or more.

Although the majority of these two different kinds of stories—novels and near-novels—may appear superficially similar at first glance, they are not really identical when seen from a literary perspective. Both kinds are long, complicated fictional prose narratives with many interconnected parts, but near-novels were only harbingers of the real thing. When deconstructed, they can easily be seen to lack the key mandatory literary elements that would be required to make them over.

This is not to say that near novels are not good literature—in fact, some of them are great literature. Good or bad, they helped pave the way to real novels. The authors who wrote near novels did not write true novels themselves, but they influenced other authors who did write true novels. Thus near novels are properly regarded as modern novel precursors, not as novels themselves, with their own special kinds of literary formats, writing styles, writing tricks and techniques, and other conventions.

Whether a story is counted among the first true novels or whether it was written yesterday, to be a novel it must be composed with the aid of a particular group of literary techniques, in a special way that makes it unique and different from all other ways to tell stories. Thus the Muses prefer to draw a strict distinction between novels and near novels. They prefer to call the first true novels novels or modern novels and to call these other kinds of long fictional prose narratives proto-novels.

Used with caution and precision, the term modern novel is an acceptable and specific literary term suitable for denoting particular ways actual novels are written today. That is, a true modern novel must be cast in a literary form that distinguishes it from all other literary forms. To be its own special kind of literature, a novel must be a long complex fictional narrative written in prose. That and a cluster of other secondary characteristics is what makes a story a novel.

But what's a narrative, you may be wondering? A narrative is another word for a story. Whether true or fictitious, a narrative is an account of events or experiences and the like. It's a series of related happenings concerning people or things. But for a novel, a narrative is more than that.

evolution of the storyprehistory

As already pointed out, novels are forms of narratives that tell stories in special ways; novels are a form of storytelling. So what's a story? A story is a narrative, either true or fictitious, composed in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader.

Putting these notions together, the Muses have devised these alternate definitions for stories:

  1. A story is a written or spoken fictional or nonfictional poetic or prosaic account of events or experiences designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader. Storytelling is the telling or writing of stories.
  2. A prose story is a particular kind of story that's written or spoken in the ordinary form of written or spoken language, without metrical structure, as distinguished from poetry or verse. Examples are novels, novellas, and short stories.
  3. A poetic story is a special kind of story written or spoken in verse or metrical feet, whether rhymed or unrhymed. Examples are most epics, narrative poems, and sagas.
  4. Prose narration is something narrated using prose, where prose is the ordinary form of spoken or written language, without metrical structure, as distinguished from poetry or verse. Thus, a prose narration is any account, story, or narrative told by the ordinary form of spoken of written language; it's the act or process of narrating; it's the recital of events, especially in chronological order.

From these definitions it's clear that stories can be told (and are told today) by a wide variety of literary vehicles and media, not just by novels. So long as their forms or genres are compatible with narration. different kinds of stories—different ways to tell stories can be composed in prose or verse; they can be simple or complex, long or short, fictional or nonfictional, and spoken or written.

Given this wide variety of different kinds of possible stories, and given the primitive nature of prehistoric authors, in this section we're primarily concerned with stories as narrative phenomena, not as literature—with how and when and where they were told, and by what peoples. For reasons too obvious to enumerate, it's highly unlikely that any of these primitives ever "wrote" a novel, or indeed wrote anything in the literal sense of the word "write." Thus the literary mechanisms by which they have been told, such as style or communication media, are a secondary concern.

Commonly the term tell in the phrase tell a story signifies the giving of an account, narrative, or relation. That's the primary sense in which the term tell is used here. But tell also has several other meanings. The word tell is loosely used in the English language: it can mean to make known by speech or writing; to express in words or utter; to reveal or judge; to say plainly or positively; to discern or recognize; to distinguish or discriminate or ascertain; to inform; etc. These diverse meanings for the phrase tell a story suggest that there more aspects involved in the act of storytelling than simply giving an account.

The kinds of stories told by modern novels do all of the things just listed, in one way or another; but since most modern novels are printed, not spoken aloud, modern novel storytelling normally doesn't involve making a story known by speech; instead it involves making a story known by writing.

However, telling stories wasn't always done this way. In prehistoric times, before writing systems were devised, there was no way for an author to write a story. If there were, we probably would have found records of their stories and their times wouldn't have been prehistoric.

But stories were told anyway, even without writing. Fortunately, several other methods existed for telling true or fictitious narrations designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer. An author—and here, again, we're talking about primitives—could grunt, squeal, gesture, sign, act out, or use other means to get his or her story across.

Storytelling goes back a long way. Thus we've divided this sectionthe story of the evolution of the storyinto prehistoric and historic periods.

And what is there to say at this point about prehistoric storytelling?

Where prehistoric stories are concerned, we cannot safely assert that storytelling was a universal and uniform phenomenon; what we can say about storytelling by one species in one place or period does not necessarily apply to all species, places, or times.

And further, the topic we're primarily dealing with in this section—the evolution of stories in the distant and unrecorded past—does not involve complex ways to tell stories because complex storytelling forms are not likely to have existed in the prehistoric past; man's brain was far too underdeveloped back then for complex stories to have existed, and the world mankind lived in was far too simple a place.

Thus we will be not be dealing here with the evolution of complex literary forms; we will wait to do this until the section that follows, where we will examine the historical evolution of a selected variety of relatively complex stories, including the kinds that appear in novels.

Yes, at first "storytelling," if it actually took place in prehistoric times, probably was very simple stuff. But don't be misled by this fact into thinking that prehistoric storytelling had no connection with the evolution to more complex story forms. Indeed, prehistoric storytelling must have at least indirectly influenced the kinds of historic storytelling that began when prehistoric storytelling ended. Simple forms of prehistoric storytelling must themselves have gradually grown in sophistication and power until eventually they evolved to relatively more complex storytelling.


What do we mean by storytelling prehistory? What are the time periods in which storytelling began and initially developed?

Prehistory is human history in the period before recorded events, known mainly through archeological discoveries, study, research, etc. It's the period in human history before events were recorded by those who actually lived through them and observed them, or by their contemporaries.

By contrast, history is the branch of recorded knowledge dealing with past events as recorded by people about people. A history is a continuous, systematic recorded narrative of past events as they relate to a particular people, country, period, person, etc. An historic account usually consists of factual and subjective observations and opinions that third parties have compiled from past oral accounts or written records. It's usually written long after the period in which the events actually took place.

By prehistoric storytelling we mean the stories prehistoric people told to each other during prehistoric periods, as recounted to one another while they were alive. By the evolution of prehistoric stories we mean how stories and storytelling changed as time passed during prehistoric periods.

To be perfectly clear, by prehistoric humans we are referring here to the various subspecies of the genus Homo (man) that walked the earth before recorded history began. The scientific fields most directly concerned with the study of prehistoric humans are paleobiology, paleontology, paleoclimatology, and paleoarcheology. Many other sciences also are involved, such as nuclear physicis, toxicology, forensic anthropology, volcanology, paleo horticulture, etc.

Scientific accounts about the nature of human life before recorded history have been developed within these fields; they have been constructed from objective observations, suppositions, and conclusions derived from solid scientific research. They are accounts of what probably happened to mankind in the period before recorded history began.

Seen from this perspective, history and prehistory are really two parts of the same thinghuman history. Human history doesn't start with the events recorded by people who wrote them down; it's an uninterrupted chronological account of both historic and prehistoric events whose scope and reach includes them both. It's the study, accumulation, compilation, and recording of information about humans who lived during historic periods plus reconstructed accounts about humans who lived during prehistoric periods, before the times when people began to record events about themselves.

Seen this way, both history and prehistory concern animals, plants, microorganisms weather phenomena, geologic upheavals, and a host of other subjects that played a part in determining how mankind has gradually developed to where it is now. It includes such topics as what prehistoric people did, who they were, and from whom they descended. It addresses their living conditions and lifestyles, interactions with one another, whether or not they prospered or suffered, how they managed to survive, how they behaved, and the manner in which they died. It includes speculations about transient matters such as things they might have done or thought about, and practicalities such as shelters they built and how they built them. It tells stories about how people survived under adverse living conditions, and about how they were born and how they died.

Above all, history should draw a continuous and complete picture of how and why mankind has evolved from what it was to what it is, of the ultimate causes and effects that have led us to where we are today. And since mankind tells stories today, history should do the same for stories.

about genus and species

Scientists classify historic and prehistoric humans as to their genus and species. They like to talk about life forms that lived in prehistoric eras using terms like these.

What's a species? In the field of biology, a species is a biological category or class of individual organisms having a distinct set of key biological characteristics or qualities in common with one another.

A species is the major category or subdivision of a genus or subgenus. Members of a species (i.e., individual organisms of a given species) are able to breed among themselves, but are not able to breed with members of another species.

What's a genus? In the field of biology, a genus is a basic biological category or class of organisms that's composed of related individual organisms that resemble each another. It's the usual major subdivision of a family or subfamily of living organisms. It's a class of organisms that usually consists of more than one species.

Each related class of organisms belonging to a genus (i.e., each species) contains or exhibits some of the key anatomical characteristics that define its genus. And each related class of organisms contains key anatomical characteristics that mark it as unique and different from the other organisms belonging to its genus.

about homo sapiens and homo sapiens sapiens

The species Homo sapiens is the scientific name for the species that includes prehistoric and modern humans. It's a Latin term that translates into English as wise person or wise man.

Homo sapiens sapiens (wise wise man) is a subspecies of the Homo sapiens species. The second sapiens at the end of its name is meant to indicate that Homo sapiens sapiens is a subspecies of the sapiens species. Said another way, Homo sapiens sapiens is a subspecies of the Homo sapiens species and both are members of the Homo genus.

The name Homo sapiens sapiens contains two sapiens instead of one because members of this subspecies are believed to be the most intelligent members of the Homo genus ever to have evolved—they're wiser than a single wise man. All people alive today are members of this subspecies, and no other Homo genus subspecies is alive anywhere on earth. Consequently, modern humans—that is, members of the Homo sapiens sapiens speciesare the only extant members of the Hominina clade.

However, at one time the Homo genus did contain another Homo sapiens species, one called Homo sapiens idaltu (meaning elder). The Homo sapiens idaltu species lived almost 160,000 years ago in Pleistocene Africa, but is now extinct. Its demise occurred prior to the birth of the Homo sapiens species, and as a result of this departure, at no time in history has the Homo genus contained more than one Homo sapiens species.

As already pointed out, the species Homo sapiens belongs to the genus Homo, a term meaning man. In addition to containing the Homo sapiens species, the genus Homo comprises several other extinct species that are classified as ancestral, closely related precursors to modern humans. Among these other species are the two extinct species Homo habilis and Homo neanderthalensis.

The Denisova homonim offers yet another example of an extinct human species in the genus Homo, one that lived as recently as about 40,000 years ago. It is called Denisova because its remains were discovered in a remote Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains in Siberia, a cave which has also been inhabited by Neanderthals and modern humans.

Some of these Homo genus species coexisted with others. For example, not only did Denisovans inhabit the same cave as was inhabited by Neanderthals and modern humans, they lived among and interbred with Neanderthals and modern humans. And some of these species lived for millions of years, long enough to evolve before they ceased to exist.


Homo sapiens vs. Homo sapiens sapiens

Do you find terms like Homo sapiens ambiguous or confusing? They're part of the vocabulary of a scientific field named cladistics. Cladistics is the classification of organisms based on the branchings of descendant lineages from a common ancestor.

By now you probably have noticed that the field of cladistics is full of terms derived from Latinisms. When it comes to Homo sapiens, one of the most important Latin-based terms is hominim clade. What's a homonim clade? The term hominin means resembling or characteristic of humans. A clade is a taxonomic group of organisms classified together on the basis of homologous features traced to a common ancestor.

You may have trouble finding references to the term Homo sapiens sapiens in technical taxonomy literature because most biologists prefer to classify the Homo sapiens sapiens subspecies as a species, not a subspecies. That's because formal taxonomy does not recognize the legitimacy of a subspecies if the species it belongs to contains only a single independent taxon variety. A taxon is a taxonomic category, such as a species or genus.

Biologists consider all people alive today—modern man—to be members of the Homo sapiens species—they comprise the hominin clade; no other Homo genus species exists. In the case of the Homo sapiens species, the fact that there is only one Homo sapiens species in the Homo genus means that there can be no Homo sapiens sapiens subspecies in that genus.

Why do taxonomists follow this course where Homo sapiens is concerned?

Formal taxonomists recognize that a species has no subspecies unless it has at least two simultaneous independent subspecies, and the Homo sapiens species has never simultaneously possessed two subspecies because the Homo sapiens idaltu demise occurred prior to the birth of the Homo sapiens species. Further, at one time it was theorized that the Homo sapiens species evolved from the Homo sapiens idaltu species, which would make Homo sapiens a species in its own right, and not a subspecies.

These facts convinced formal taxonomists to refer to the Homo sapiens sapiens species by the name Homo sapiens. But here in this feature, as a matter of convenience we employ either the term Homo sapiens species or the term Homo sapiens sapiens subspecies to specify modern man, whichever term is appropriate for the context of the discussion.

How and when did the Homo sapiens species come into existence? The evidence is sparse, and science is still investigating. But this will give you a rough idea:

According to the conventional view, the Homo genus is about 2.8 million years old—it started up that long ago with the species Homo habilis. The species Homo sapiens is thought by some to have evolved from the species Homo habilis, which in turn emerged or evolved from the genus Australopithecus, the latter of which had previously split from the lineage of Pan, the chimpanzees.

The association of technologies such as tools by both early Homo sapiens and early Neanderthals initially led some experts to conjecture that Homo Sapiens evolved after Neanderthals, or even that they evolved from Neanderthals; but it's now clear that early Homo sapiens did not come into being after Neanderthals appeared, but rather that the two species were contemporaneous. Some scholars theorize that both Neanderthals and modern humans share a common ancestor that originated 500,000 to 800,000 years ago. Others feel that it's likely that both modern humans and Neanderthals are descended from Homo heidelbergensis, an extinct species of the genus Homo that lived in Africa, Europe and western Asia between 600 and 200 thousand years ago.

It's also possible that both modern humans and Neanderthals are descended from another species called Homo heidelbergensis. Homo heidelbergensis, also known as Homo rhodesiensis, is an extinct genus Homo species that lived in Africa, Europe and western Asia between 600,000 and 200,000 years ago. The skulls of this species share features with both Homo erectus and anatomically modern Homo sapiens, and its brain was nearly as large as that of Homo sapiens.

The preponderance of genetic and fossil evidence supports the thesis that archaic Homo sapiens began solely in Africa between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago, a time of dramatic climate change. Like other early humans living at that time, these Homo sapiens gathered and hunted food; they evolved behaviors that helped them respond to the new survival challenges posed by unstable climate conditions and environments.

The first Homo sapiens species appeared in the fossil record in Africa about 195,000 years ago. These fossil bones belonging to the Homo sapiens species were discovered at Omo National Park in south-western Ethiopia.

Some scientists use brain size as a rough measure of intelligence. Judging by their cranial capacities and the effectiveness of their lifestyle performance, the Omo Homo sapiens tended to demonstrate more intelligence than their other Homo genus contemporaries. They possessed greater ingenuity and adaptability. Their superior intelligence and performance allowed their Homo sapiens descendents to triumph over adversity and to better meet the challenges of competition from other Homo species, from animals, and from inanimate nature. They became, arguably, one of the most influential and powerful species on the planet.

Modern humans belong to the same Homo sapiens species as these Omo people. And as a result, modern peoples are anatomically similar to the Omo. Since modern Homo Sapiens have anatomies similar to those of the Omo, they have similar cranial capacity. It follows that modern and ancient humans possess approximately the same level of basic intelligence.

How and when did the Homo sapiens sapiens species come into existence?

Modern Homo sapiensthe version of Homo sapiens called Homo sapiens sapiens—seems to demonstrate even greater intelligence than its Homo sapiens forefathers. How did the Homo sapiens sapiens branch get started?

Some experts speculate that about 60,000 years ago there was an accidental genetic mutation in Africa that "rewired" the Homo sapiens brain in some critical way, possibly allowing for a significant advance in speech capability. (The evolutionary origin of human speech is still a mystery.)

Improved communications at that time could have enabled people to better conceive, model, and manage complex natural and social situations; it could have increased their ability to shape and manipulate their culture in a manner similar to that demonstrated by Homo sapiens sapiens people alive today.

This branch of new and different "rewired" Homo sapiens is what some today call Homo sapiens sapiens. Researchers who subscribe to this hypothesis theorize that a band of these Homo sapiens sapiens migrated from Africa to Europe about 60,000 years ago, and that over time they replaced earlier human populations living there such as Neanderthals and Homo erectus.

These theorists also believe that a turning point in human creativity occurred in Europe starting about 40,000 years ago, when "out of Africa" Homo sapiens sapiens created the first unambiguous artifacts of abstract and symbolic thought. This new breed of humans, today commonly referred to as Cro-Magnons, are scientifically referred to as European Early Modern Humans (EEMH).

EEM humans lived a lifestyle that contemporary humans would recognize and relate to: 1) they manufactured more advanced tools than their forefathers, 2) buried their dead with ceremony, 3) demonstrated a new kind of self-awareness by ornamenting their bodies with beads and pendants, and 4) displayed a new sense of artistic expression by fashioning finely wrought expressive figurines of the female form.

And perhaps most famously, this new breed of humans communicated records of their lives and minds by painting beautiful and splendidly expressive wall designs on cave walls. For forty thousand years they painted images of deer, horses, and wild bulls; they spray-painted pictures of their own hands; and they laid down geometric marks.

These genetically "rewired" modern humans from Africa left their indelible cultural marks in Europe wherever they lived. According to one popular theory, they outsmarted their Homo erectus and Neanderthal African competitors, who had been ensconced in Europe hundreds of thousands of years before they arrived. And these relative newcomers eventually drove these other species to extinction. The last of the European Neanderthals, for example, were significantly reduced in number at the hands of their rivals by 30,000 BCE; and the last of them were snuffed out perhaps as recently as 10,000 years ago. Whatever the precise population slide that took place, sooner or later none of these species with "old brains" were left alive.

As previously noted, scientists use brain size as a rough measure of the amount of intelligence in man and animals. To give you an idea of how much Homo genus intelligence advanced as new Homo species developed, consider that very early humans, such as Homo erectus, had a brain capacity of about 500 cc to 600 cc. Later species such as Homo sapiens had brain sizes ranging from about 1,200 cc to 1,400 cc; and the Neanderthal subspecies, which was one of those that had coexisted with Homo sapiens sapiens for a while, had a brain capacity of about 1,600 cc.

This 1,600 cc figure for Neanderthal brain size exceeds the brain capacity of their contemporary Homo sapiens sapiens stalwarts. And it also exceeds the brain size of anatomically modern human beings—those of us who are alive today and who belong to the same rewired Homo sapiens sapiens subspecies as the Homo sapiens sapiens who overcame the Neanderthals.

The fact that Homo sapiens sapiens apparently outwitted Neanderthals even though equipped with slightly smaller brains suggests that there's actually more to determining a species' intelligence than calculating the sheer quantity of its brain matter. A generic mutation such as the one hypothesized for rewired humans might account for this discrepancy.

We shall consider the connection between brain size and intelligence again. When we do, keep in mind the correlation between brain size and intelligences is a rough one. Studies demonstrate that a correlation between brain size and intelligence does exist, with larger brains predicting higher intelligence. However, MRI studies report moderate correlations of only around 0.3 to 0.4 between brain volume and intelligence, and it is unclear if this correlation is causal.

While brain size may be related to human intelligence, other factors also play a role. For example, brain size differs between men and women, but without well documented differences in IQ. Further, the structure of the adult human brain changes when a new cognitive or motor skill, such as vocabulary, is learned. Other examples of the affect of learning on brain structure and size include learning novel speech sounds, musical ability, navigation skills, and learning to read mirror-reflected words.

In case you're wondering why elephants, with their extra-large brains, are not considered the smartest of all mammals, consider a current scientific hypothesis which discounts absolute brain mass as a valid index of intelligence. It alleges that what works best for deducing intelligence from brain size is brain mass in relation to body mass.

archaic humans

Archaic or ancient mankind are terms biologists, paleontologists, paleoanthropologists, and other researchers use to designate all the bipedal Homo sapiens primates who preceded anatomically modern humans before and during the long convoluted evolutionary process that produced modern man.

By anatomy, researchers mean the structure and internal workings of modern humans and of the bipedal Homo sapiens who preceded them.

Archaic human species are not modern humans in the full sense of the word, but they greatly resemble them. Partly because of the similarities between ancient and modern humans, anatomically modern humans are thought to have evolved from archaic humans. The anatomical similarity between modern humans and archaic humans is consistent with this evolutionary hypothesis.

Biologists most often hold up the anatomically modern Homo sapiens sapiens species—humans alive today—as having the definitive profile for making comparisons and contrasts with archaic humans. They judge the Homo sapiens sapiens species to be anatomically modern because it shows the full set of anatomical characteristics and qualities that are consistent with the range of phenotypes found in anatomically modern humans.

We just used the word phenotype. What's a phenotype? By phenotype, researchers mean the composite of an organism's observable characteristics or traits, such as its morphology (that is, form and structure), development, biochemical or physiological properties, phenology (that is, the effects of climate), behavior, and products of behavior. In the case of ancient and modern humans, behavior includes activities such as finding food, cooking, shelter building, child raising, crossing streams, mating, etc.

Ancient and modern humans are distinct species that lived under vastly different conditions, but they resemble each other in many of these phenotypical ways. And where they are distinct from one another, the phenotypical distinctions help clarify their differences.

Since no writing or other linguistic recording has been found that took place back then, many of these past phenotypical characteristics of archaic humans have been uncovered mainly through indirect means, with archaeological and anthropological study and research—through theorizing, speculation, and application of numerous scientific methodologies, such as radiometric dating, digging, aerial and satellite and underground radar surveys, earth coring, and iceberg samplingwith careful, detailed, microscopic and macroscopic examination of countless physical artifacts aided by the eye, microscope, x-ray, and similar media, devices, and techniques.

The anatomical characteristics of modern and archaic species are among the most important ones for scientists who would illuminate the connections between ancient and modern humans. By distinguishing, comparing, and contrasting their similarities and differences they uncover facts about how ancient and modern human species originated and trace how they adapted to new circumstances and evolved.

Further, understanding of ancient and modern anatomies contributes not just to structural understandings, it contributes to phenotypical understandings as well. By examining and analyzing ancient bones, teeth, etc. and their modern anatomical equivalents, researchers uncover information about lifestyles, intelligence, and a host of other factors.

These are some of the reasons why the term anatomically modern serves so important a function for scientists. The anatomical properties of modern and ancient species facilitate making accurate and legitimate structural and phenotypical comparisons and contrasts between past and present humans.

But because the bones, teeth, and other skeletal remains of archaic humans are keys to understanding their anatomy, paleo-scientists are constantly searching for opportunities to find more of them; they're seldom satisfied with the few they uncover.

Regrettably, there is this paucity of illuminating artifacts. While the observable anatomical characteristics or traits of ancient humans are among the most fruitful aspects for study, there is little confirmed objective evidence about the physiognomy and physiology of ancient humans to go on other than that gleaned from a relatively small number of fragments from relics dug out of the ground at a few dozen widely scattered discovery sites and former ancient communities around the world, along trails and at camp sites, caves or other natural shelters.

Out of necessity, researchers accept the premise that the anatomical characteristics of ancient man provide a sound basis for judging the differences and similarities between ancient humans and those alive today and for drawing conclusions. Given, the scarcity of data, it's amazing how much they've learned. But unfortunately, much prehistory is conjectural because it's based on suppositions deduced from scarce and ambiguous evidence. Conclusions are often contradictory or equivocal.


Archaic human species all began about 500,000 years ago. They're all classified as Homo sapiens species by taxonomists and they all belong to the Homo genus. Varieties include Homo sapiens neanderthalensis (living from 300,000 to 40,000 years ago), Homo rhodesiensis (living from 300,000 to 125,000 years ago), Homo heidelbergensis (living from 600,000 to 200,000 years ago), and they may also include Homo antecessor (living from 1,200,000 years ago to 800,000 years ago).

Modern humans evolved from these archaic human species who in turn evolved from Homo erectus.

However, the precise species that are included under the term archaic human is a matter of opinion that varies among experts. Nonmodern varieties of Homo are certain to have survived until after 30,000 years ago, and perhaps until as recently as 10,000 years ago. Which of these, if any, are included under the term archaic human is a matter of opinion that varies among researchers.

Moreover, each of these species has evolved to some extent during the period in which it survived, so that the specific version of a species that is a basis for comparison with modern humans is an additional matter of conjecture.

And to further cloud the issue, the extinct Homo sapiens idaltu species, which also is categorized as a Homo sapiens species, is another example of a modern human species that provides an additional intermediate basis for making comparisons. And new evidence suggests that another recently discovered group called the Red Deer Cave people of China may also have been extant as recently as 11,500 years ago. These people could be a result of matings between Denisovans and modern humans, but scientists remain skeptical as to whether the Red Deer constitute a new species, suggesting that their unique features are within the variations expected for human populations.

As previously noted, researchers do not distinguish between Homo sapiens and Homo sapiens sapiens species by their names, even though archaic humans are intellectually and physiologically different from and contrasted with modern humans. Strict but valid taxonomy clade principles require careful scientists to refer to both archaic and modern humans by the same nameas members of the Homo sapiens specieseven though they are not anatomically identical to each other, and even though humans are the only Homo sapiens left alive in the world today who can provide a basis for comparisons.

Scientists find it convenient not to distinguish between ancient Homo sapiens and modern Homo sapiens sapiens by name partly because there are a number of overlapping similarities between them. For example, archaic human brain size is in the same class as that of modern humans. Archaic humans have a brain size averaging about 1,300 cc (cubic centimeters), which compares with an average brain size for modern humans of about 1,240 cc for women and 1,440 for men.

(It's interesting to note that average human brain size has been shrinking for the last 28,000 years until it's about 1,500 cc for women and about 1,550 for men. For comparison, Homo neanderthalensis brain size was about 1,600 cc and Homo habilis brain size was about 600 cc.)

Since modern humans tell stories, and since scientists correlate brain size with intelligence, similarities like these overlapping brain capacities make it reasonable to speculate about whether ancient humans told stories.

But even while some modern and archaic human anatomical and physiological characteristics overlap, others are different. For example, archaic humans are distinguished from anatomically modern humans by a thicker skull, more prominent brow ridges, and the lack of a prominent chin. Dissimilarities like these make it reasonable to speculate about impediments to ancient humans telling stories.


Precisely who and what are archaic or ancient humans? Precisely how do they differ from anatomically modern human beings? How are the two kinds of humans similar to or different from each other?

As noted above, anatomically modern humans started appearing only about 200,000 years ago, long after ancient humans made their earthly entrances. Modern and ancient humans eventually interacted with one another to a significant degree. Interactions were so extensive that anatomically modern humans started to gradually marginalize their archaic counterparts starting about 70,000 years ago. Non-modern varieties of the Homo genus are certain to have survived until later than about 30,000 years ago, and perhaps until as recently as 10,000 years ago.

Recent genetic studies have disclosed the fact that some genes contained in the modern human genome are also found in the Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes. This fact has caused some researchers to speculate that there was contact between modern humans and at least these two other Homo genus species. In this view, nterbreeding may have been the mechanism that spread these genes between them.

Some investigators find this interbreeding concept disturbing, partly because it goes contrary to the taxonomic principle that two different species cannot interbreed, and thus contradicts a key evolutionary tenet. Other studies have cast doubt on the notion that an interbreeding admixture is the operative explanation for these shared genetic markers. Instead they point to another explanation, theorizing that both Neanderthal and Denisovan species emerged from a common origin some 500,000 to 800,000 years ago.

But whichever thesis for the cause of having these multiple genome sets in common turns out to hold true, the evidence for identical genes is irrefutable. Without doubt, the gene pool of some modern human groups contains as much as twenty percent of the genes found in archaic human populations such as Neanderthals. Thus it turns out that the range of archaic human phenotypes is consistent with the range of phenotypes in modern humans, a situation that accounts in part for the anatomical similarities between some human populations and some archaic populations.

For example, identities between Neanderthals and modern humans are not mere suppositions. For example, gene researchers estimate that between two percent and four percent of the genetic code in currently living Europeans and Asians at large derives from interbreeding between Homo sapiens sapiens and Neanderthals. These genes are thought to participate in causing type two diabetes, Crohn's disease, lupus, and biliary cirrhosis. And Neanderthal genes inherited by some modern humans include those associated with people who smoke, as well as keratin filaments, the fibrous protein that make our skin, hair and nails tough.

However, although similar to archaic humans, the physical appearance of individual members of the Homo sapiens sapiens subspecies also varies considerably from one individual member to another, and although some Homo sapiens sapiens display a few physical traits that are similar to those of archaic humans, many others do not. By far, no Homo sapiens sapiens individual possesses genes that greatly match those of members of any ancient human population.

Anatomically modern humans began to evolve from archaic humans in the Middle Paleolithic epoch, about 200,000 years ago. Their emergence marks the dawn of the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens, that is the subspecies of Homo sapiens that includes all modern humans. The oldest fossil remains of anatomically modern humans are the Omo remains found in modern-day East Africa, which date to about 195,000 years ago. They are called anatomically modern because they manifest the same or nearly the same anatomical properties as the Homo sapiens sapiens people alive today.

And modern humans comprise the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens, which differentiates them from what has been is conjectured to be their direct ancestor, Homo sapiens idaltu. The oldest fossil remains of these anatomically modern humans are the Omo remains found in modern-day Ethiopia, which date perhaps to about 195,000 years ago. The oldest human remains from which an entire genome of this species has been extracted belong to a man who lived about 45,000 years ago in Western Siberia.

A gene pool is the total genetic information in the gametes of all the individuals in a population. Whether alive or dead, since no two people are exactly the same from a genetic point of view, when geneticists invoke the term anatomically modern they are referring to the totality of past or present members of a particular gene pool; that is, they're calling out all the people who have ever belonged to the clade called Homo sapiens, including the subspecies called Homo sapiens sapiens, whether alive now or alive in the distant past.

Anatomically modern people have existed for a long time, as judged by contemporary standards for reckoning time. So biologists have sometimes found it convenient to use the term Homo sapiens to describe all the people who lived long ago as anatomically modern, provided that they were anatomically identical or very similar to people alive today. They freely refer to any of these ancient Homo sapiens who lived long ago as anatomically modern if they share the same or nearly the same anatomical properties, even though they are not Homo sapiens sapiens.

Archaic humans are distinguished from modern humans by having a thick skull, prominent brow ridges and the lack of a prominent chin. But otherwise they're not very different from modern humans—they're anatomically modern. This is the case even though, strictly speaking, they are not members of the Homo sapiens sapiens subspecies. For example, their typical brain size averages 1,200 to 1,400 cubic centimeters, which fails to approach the 1,600 cc figure typical of most modern humans.

But anatomically modern humans demonstrate a strong dependence upon tools, they're bipedal, and they're anatomically and behaviorally similar to modern humans in other ways, as well. Indeed, so advanced were they for their time, varieties of archaic humans are sometimes referred to by the name Homo sapiens, in part because in some cases their brain size was very similar to that of modern humans. Thus, taken as a whole, ancient and modern Homo species are not so very different from one another.

In fact, ancient humans are so similar to people living today, they clearly mark the evolutionary beginning of modern humans. They're literally our genetic forefathers and our evolutionary ancestors.

The evolution that led to modern man started in Africa with archaic humans and took approximately 100,000 years to complete; it ran from 200,000 to 100,000 years ago. This evolution ended toward the end of the Middle Paleolithic epoch. By then, archaic human populations that had started in Africa such as Homo erectus and Neanderthalensis were gone for a long time; the Homo erectus migration out of Africa began about 2,000,000 years ago. They'd left for parts north and had established themselves throughout Europe, Central Asia, and Northern Asia, and there was plenty of time for them to prosper in their new surroundings.

But then, about 60,000 years ago, one branch of our anatomically modern ancestors followed in the footsteps of other Homo sapiens species and left Africa for Europe too.

These multiple Homo geneses—Homo erectus, ancient, and modern man—coexisted for a time outside of Africa. One study suggests that anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals may have lived side-by-side in Europe for up to 5,000 years. But gradually the Homo sapiens sapiens descendents in Europe displaced the archaic ones during a gradual process starting 40,000 or 50,000 or 60,000 or 70,000 years ago.

Neanderthals were closely related to modern humans, having DNA over 99.5% the same. They were so similar, some biologists classify them as a subspecies of Homo sapiens which they call Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. They were intelligent too. Then why did they pass away?

Some researchers speculate that ancient and modern man were competing with one another for food and other resources. Because of their superior intelligence, Homo sapiens sapiens were more skillful hunters and gatherers; they manufactured high quality tools. Since there wasn't enough food to go around, the keener, smarter hunters exterminated their Neanderthal opposition by wiping out their food sources. Or perhaps modern humans eliminated ancient humans by means of combat.

In an extensive, multi-institution study, researchers have identified new genetic evidence supporting the growing belief that Neanderthals were a distinct species separate from modern humans (Homo sapiens), and not a subspecies of modern humans. But somehow, because of similar gene pools, Neanderthals and ancient humans were able to interbreed; Neanderthals no longer retained a unique identity of their own, and with a dwindling gene pool of their own, they were unable to preserve their unique identity.

Perhaps a combination of all these factors were at work to bring about their disappearance.

At the same time, other genetic research has confirmed that Neanderthals have contributed at least twenty percent of their genomes to anatomically modern humans as a result of interbreeding. As a result, a number of modern humans alive today actually possess some of their archaic ancestors' genes, genes handed down to them from their distant and recent forefathers.


Why have we dived so deeply here into the nature of ancient humans? Because knowing their nature might help substantiate the thesis that early humans could tell stories. There's absolutely no doubt that modern humans can tell stories; they do it all the time everywhere they go. Telling fictional and nonfictional stories is a innate human penchant.

Given the many ways in which ancient and modern humans are alike, does it follow that some ancient humans who were anatomically similar to modern humans were likely to have been able to tell stories as well?

Yes, unlikely as it may seem at first glance, it does seem plausible that stories did exist in prehistoric antiquity, even though ancient peoples were severely limited by their anatomical and intellectual faculties compared with modern man.

We can say this much with reasonable certainty: Their cultures were primitive; in most cases, their civilizations were not yet sufficiently developed to teach them the rudiments of speaking and writing. So at first their inherent physical and natural limitations must have forced them to employ grotesque gestures, crude mouthings, snorts, grunts, or grotesque bodily movements to express themselves. But what might have happened after a populace achieved these types and levels of communication is virtually anybody's guess.

Given the primitive living conditions that pertained during prehistory, is it possible that stories were ever told or set down before recorded history began? Is it possible that any kinds of narratives were concocted during that long-bygone era, however coarse or transitory they may have been? Given the great gap between contemporary human beings and those who lived back thengiven the deep obscurity of past eventsis it possible that science will ever substantiate whether stories were told once upon a time? And if stories were told in prehistoric times, can we hold out any hope that the stories themselves will ever be uncovered or somehow recreated?

Perhaps so; stranger things have happened. Just consider what and how much has been learned from the invention of the new science of genomics; it's uncovered fresh knowledge in fields such as medical treatments, genealogy, taxonomy, migrations of ancient peoples, etc. that until recently many experts considered forever out of reach.

But in any case, for the foreseeable future current limitations with the research expended to define the nature of ancient humans would seem to cloud the certainty of any conclusions about prehistoric stories that we can safely draw at this time. The sections that follow explore some of the possibilities for making new discoveries and some of the hindrances that seem to hamper future revelations.

A Homo habilis bust modeled from bone fragments. He's a real beauty, isn't he?

Did Homo habilis tell stories?

As noted above, Homo is the genus that includes the species Homo sapiens sapiens, or modern humans. It also includes several other extinct species classified as ancestral to or closely related to modern humans, for example Homo habilis and Homo neanderthalensis.

The hominin species called Homo habilis provides an example of an early Homo member who might be a candidate storyteller. But how well suited for that role was he?

The Homo genus is about 2.8 million years old. Homo habilis, who constituted is first and only species member at that time, may have emerged from an extinct genus of hominins called australopithecus, which itself had previously split from the lineage of the genus Pan, the chimpanzees.

Homo Habilis means handy man, a name given to him because he possessed a slightly larger brain than some other very early humans, and because thousands of primitive stone tools have been found in places where he lived, suggesting that he might have possessed a degree of skills and other related abilities. Moreover, he displayed an advanced development compared with the chimpanzee, and he had a less protruding face than the australopithecines from which he had sprung.

But Homo Habilis stood no more than four feet three inches tall and his brain size ranged from only 550 cc to 687 cc. He had an ape-like morphology. He possessed a large face, tiny canines, and massive chewing teeth; and he was short and had disproportionately long arms compared to modern humans.

In fact, his small size and primitive physical and mental attributes are so different from those of other kinds of hominins, despite the stone tools he may have invented and used there has been scholarly debate over his placement in the genus Homo rather than the genus australopithecus.

Some experts even have questioned his classification as a member of the Homo genus, but if he is a true hominin, the Homo habilis species marks the start of the Homo genus. That would make Homo Habilis the first species belonging to the Homo genus to appear, the first of the long line of Homo descendents related to modern man.

Homo Habilis died out about 1.5 million years ago, in the Pleistocene epoch, a hard time in which to survive. It was a geological epoch which lasted from about 2,588,000 years ago to 11,700 years ago, a period experiencing repeated glaciations. Each glacial advance tied up huge volumes of water in continental ice sheets 4,900 to 9,800 feet thick, resulting in temporary sea-level drops of 100 meters or more over the entire surface of the Earth. Drowned coastlines during interglacial times were common. It endured about 1.3 million years, a long time during which Homo Habilis struggled to survive.

Despite low intelligence, given its ability to survive under stress, its long duration evolution, and its possible Homo roots, is it not worth pausing a moment to consider whether Homo Habilis might have been able to tell stories?

Certainly, the lives of its members were so wrought with adventures and hazards, fears and dangers, it's certain they had wonderfully exciting thoughts to convey to their peers and grandchildren. And they had the intelligence to work with tools, defend against predators, and scavenge.

There's little doubt they could gesture to one another and produce intelligible sounds to make themselves understood. It's very unlikely they possessed the faculty of articulate discourse, but it's possible they spoke a proto-language. A proto-language lacks the fully developed structure of modern human language but it's more developed than the non-verbal communication used by chimpanzees. And although it's a stretch, it's not altogether out of the question that they could remember their adventures well enough to organize them into a sequence of events and crudely exchange them.

That's a picture of Homo habilis at the right, above. Judge for yourself whether a "man" like this might have told stories.

A Homo erectus bust modeled from bone fragments. Another beauty.

Did Homo Erectus tell stories?

The hominin species called Homo erectus provides another example of an early Homo species that is a candidate storyteller.

Homo erectus, meaning upright man, is an extinct hominin species that lived throughout most of the Pleistocene geological epoch. Its earliest fossil evidence dates to 1.9 million years ago, and the latest from as recent as 70,000 years ago.

From the dates for Homo sapiens and other species and subspecies which overlap, it follows that human species and their predecessor Homo erectus species coexisted at one time or another; but exactly how or when these various subspecies descended from one another has not been established.

It's generally thought that the members of his Homo erectus group originated in Africa and spread from there, emigrating throughout Eurasia as far as Georgia in Eurasia, India, Sri Lanka, China and Indonesia. But some investigators posit that the species arose first or separately in Asia.

Homo erectus collected and ate berries, fruits, and grasses. They also ate meat, which formed a large part of their diet, suggesting that they were resourceful and effective hunters. They used fire, possibly to keep warm and safe. They may have cooked with fire, but researchers can't be sure of that. They probably were the first hominina to live in a hunter-gatherer society, and many anthropologists believe that they were socially more like modern humans than the australopithecus-like species that lived before them.

Homo erectus showed signs of intelligence, even though their brain volume was not large. It ranged between 550 cc and 600 cc, about the same size as that of Homo Habilis, a cranial capacity that generally coincides with the more sophisticated tools occasionally found with their fossils.

The Broca's area is a cerebral region normally positioned in the left inferior frontal gyrus, a specific ridge of the Homo sapiens brain that's located on the cerebral cortex, an area associated with the movements necessary for speech production. It's deemed likely by analysts that Homo erectus also possessed a gyrus, supporting the possibility that Homo erectus populations might have employed a form of proto-language themselves.

All things considered, it seems less unlikely for Homo erectus to have conveyed primitive accounts of the events in their lives than for homo habilis to have done so. And, as with homo habilis, it's seems possible that Homo erectus communicated among themselves by means of a proto-language.

That's a picture of Homo habilis at the right. As with Homo habilis, it's possible but unlikely they told stories.

true neanderthals

Neanderthals are a human species or subspecies in the genus Homo. They are generally classified by paleontologists as the species Homo neanderthalensis, or alternatively a subspecies of Homo sapiens called Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. As noted above, it's possible that both modern humans and Neanderthals are descended from Homo heidelbergensis.

Reconstruction of the head of a Neanderthal fossil who lived 70,000 years ago

Neanderthal settlements started forming about 100,000 or 200,000 years ago, collecting mainly in very small bands or family groups situated in open air or cave settlements scattered around what today is Western Europe.

Classic Neanderthal fossils have been found over a large area, from northern Germany to Israel and Mediterranean countries like Spain and Italy in the south and from England and Portugal in the west to Uzbekistan in the east. Recent evidence has extended the Neanderthal range into southern Siberia's Altai Mountains. Remains left by Neanderthals include bone and stone tools found in Eurasia, from Western Europe to Central, Northern, and Western Asia.

Geneticists have successfully sequenced the entire genome of a single Neanderthal. A genome they recently sequenced was extracted from the toe bone of a 50,000 year old Neanderthal found in a Siberian cave. With this achievement it became possible to analyze and compare the Neanderthal genome with that of ancient and modern humans. It was discovered that Neanderthals and modern humans are closely related, with a DNA that's over 99.5 percent the same in each species.

Furthermore, studies using gene-sequencing techniques to analyze a test group of 665 modern European and East Asian people alive today have found that more than 20 percent of the Neanderthal genome survives in this group. These results support the theory that interbreeding between contemporary modern humans and Neanderthals probably took place before Neanderthals were pushed to extinction by Homo sapiens sapiens, possibly about 40,000 years ago.

These genetic results demonstrate that both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens sapiens are among our forefathers, and that at least some of us who are alive today are actually carrying Neanderthal genes. They illustrate that the human race today shares common "blood" obtained from its Neanderthal ancestors.

A picture showing physical three-dimensional figures based on this analysis can be seen below. The Neanderthal genes discovered and identified in the tests mentioned above have been used to to infer the anatomical makeup of the Neanderthals who interbred with the human population so long ago. The picture shows the likely appearance of a settlement of True Neanderthal cave dwellers who might have lived in a family unit or extended family back then. Their figures seem quite alike those of modern humans.

Regarding their ability to speak, investigators have determined that these Neanderthal's were bestowed with organs suitable for speech; they possessed the other physiological tools needed to support speech, such as lungs with sufficient muscles and blood flow.

Neanderthals are a humanoid species with broad features and red or reddish hair that resembled anatomically modern humans in many respects. Researchers have concluded that Neanderthals lived a communal lifestyle, which suggests that they may have employed speech for conducting everyday chores such as hut building, hunting, and cooking. They fashioned tools from rocks and other materials for a very long time, a behavior consistent with the notion that speech and tool-crafting evolved together in their societies. They sported a brain capacity of 1600 cc, one larger than most of the other human subspecies alive at their time, and one even slightly larger than that of modern man. Neanderthals intentionally buried their dead and practiced burial behavior.

Just look at them. A seated man is working on the tusk of an animal probably killed that day, while another looks on making comments. Others carry animals over their shoulders. Don't they seem as though they had stories to tell about how the animals were caught, just as we do after we finish a hunt?

All of these circumstances strongly favor of the idea that Neanderthals mastered the challenges of prose speech and were equal to the task of using it for storytelling. Narrative prose storytelling, however crude, may have begun among them after prose speech became established as their ordinary form of spoken and written human language, if not before.

Three dimensional figures depicting a settlement of True Neanderthal cave dwellers

cro-magnon man in prehistoric europe

Not just Neanderthals give us reason to speculate that storytelling began very early. As we shall see, storytelling may well have occurred with a group of prehistoric European Early Modern Humans (EEMH) of the Homo sapiens sapiens species called Cro-Magnons.

The Upper Paleolithic epoch, which dates from about 40,000 to 10,000 BCE, encompasses the late phase of the Stone Age in Europe. It's known as the Stone Age because it's a period earmarked by the steady development of stone tools, antler and bone artifacts, engravings on bone and stone, sculpted figures, and paintings and engravings on the walls of caves and rock shelters.

Cro-Magnons flourished during this time and in this place.

The first True Cro-Magnons appeared in East Africa about 100,000 or 200,000 years ago. Later they migrated north into areas suchas Western Europe and the European Russian Arctic. The earliest known remains of Cro-Magnon-like humans were found in Italy and Britain; they date from about 45,000 years ago. Remains of other Cro-Magnons that date from 40,000 years ago have been found in the European Russian Arctic. Cro-Magnon humans became extinct about 10,000 years ago.

The first Cro-Magnon skeletal specimens were found in 1868 near Périgueux in the hamlet of Les Eyzies in the commune of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil in southwestern France, in an Aurignacian rock shelter called Abri de Crô-Magnon. Magnon is the name of the owner of the land on which the shelter was situated. Cro-Magnons are named for this man and this shelter.

Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals are members of different Homo species, but they're related. Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals differ from each other enough to be classified as separate species but they resemble each other enough for both to be classified as humans.

Excavations at Abri de Crô-Magnon and elsewhere have revealed that like Neanderthals, Cro-Magnons were robustly structured and powerful, with a heavy, solid, robust build and with strong musculature. They ranged in height from about five feet five inches to five feet seven inches, a size making them taller than other earlier human species that preceded them in Europe. But unlike Neanderthals, Cro-Magnons had short and wide faces, dome-shaped skulls, and sunken eyes.

Cro-Magnons are believed to be the first humans to have prominent chins. Their foreheads were fairly long, straight, and broad rather than sloping; and unlike Neanderthals they had only slight browridges. Their brain capacity was about 1,600 cc, a size which matches that of Neanderthals, but which is slightly larger than average for anatomically modern humans.

Despite their unique differences, both Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons were anatomically similar to modern man in many ways, not just in brain size, but also in overall physical appearance and anatomical structure. Both species manufactured complex tools, which according to one recently-revived theory suggests that they may have spoken a language. And further, since Cro-Magnons belong to the same species as modern humans, that is, Homo sapiens, from a genetic and biological point of view it follows that contemporary humans probably would be physiologically capable of reproducing fertile offspring by mating with Cro-Magnons if members of the latter group were alive today.

Cro-Magnons seem to have been a settled people, moving only when necessary to find new hunting or fishing grounds or because of detrimental environmental changes. Their dwellings are most often found in deep caves and in shallow caves formed by rock overhangs, but primitive huts, either lean-tos against rock walls or those built completely from stones, also have been found. Because they were sheltered from the elements, their rock shelters were suitable for habitation year-round.

Cro-Magnons worked at the advanced state of the art when it came to making tools. In addition to stone, they made tools from materials that included bones, antlers, teeth and ivory. They produced a variety of tool designs optimized for different purposes, such as retouched blades, end scrapers, “nosed” scrapers, a chisel-like tool known as a burin, and fine bone tools. They also manufactured stone tools characterized by a sophisticated abrupt retouching technique that generates flat backs that are optimum for smoothing and scraping leather. This rich variety of tools and technologies helped them quickly adapt to and master a variety of climates, topologies, and other environments.

With tools like these just mentioned they were able to create needles for sewing warmer clothes and sharper axes with which to chop down trees. In turn, sharp axes allowed them to manufacture fishhooks and to fashion logs into canoes for travel and fishing, as well as to invent and effectively apply new kinds of long distance weapons, such as bows and arrows and spear-throwers (atlatls).  Their new technologies made it possible for Cro-Magnon populations to explode.

Neanderthals practiced burial behavior and intentionally buried their dead. Like them, Cro-Magnons buried and interred their dead, a custom they have in common with the vast majority of contemporary modern cultures.

Not only did they bury their dead, Cro-Magnons performed behaviors that appear to be religious rites and lavish burial procedures. These rites included placing a variety of ornate goods and personal weapons alongside their interred deceased, grave goods possibly intended for use by the deceased in the next life. Such behaviors were earmarks of greater sophistication compared with that of Neanderthals or other contemporary species or predecessors; they were steps forward and steps apart.

A speculative depiction of a Cro-Magnon group conducting a burial. Were they the first to tell stories around a camp fire or in a cave?

Besides Neanderthals, Cro-Magnons subsisted alongside a number of other human species and cultures in Europe; by no means were they the only ones to reside there during the Upper Paleolithic epoch, a severe climatological period that imposed harsh living conditions for all. The Ice Age glacial epoch, which lasted between 40,000 and 14,000 years ago, was just one of the perils they endured. Not only was it extremely cold, prey was scarce and hunting for food was a constant challenge.

They and the other human species of this age carved and sculpted small engravings, reliefs, and statuettes of humans and animals upon stone, bone, antler, and ivory specimens. But Cro-Magnon figurines and other art works tended to be more copious and of superior artistic quality. In fact, the Cro-Magnons provide us with perhaps the best examples of art devised by any of these prehistoric peoples.

Carvings of statuettes were among their most important art works. The bulk of these Cro-Magnon carvings, which began to be chiselled and shaped about 40,000 years ago, are of female subjects. They are not female portraits as you might expect, but rather they are faceless idealized representations of well fed, healthy, large-breasted, wide-hipped, obviously pregnant nude women with enlarged stomachs, buttocks, and breasts.

Many of these stylized carved statuettes are anatomically realistic in many details, yet they are reminiscent of modern abstract art because they lack or deemphasize subservient anatomical details such as facial features, ears, etc. Because of their exaggerated sexual and other anatomical characteristics, most paleoanthropologists believe them to be ritual objects symbolizing female fertility, and consequently they often refer to them as Venus figurines.

Venus figurines like these were sculpted from around 35,000 years ago until as recently as the aftermath of the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago. They have been found from Western Europe all of the way to Siberia. Most are small enough in size to be easily held in one hand.

One of the most famous of these Cro-Magnon figurines is the so-called Venus of Willendorf, now know in academia as the Woman of Willendorf, a four-and-a-half inch limestone sculpture tinted in red ochre carved between 28,000 BCE and 25,000 BCE. It's possible that its sculptor tinted it red to represent menstrual blood. It's called by that name because it was found in an anthropological dig near the town of Willendorf, Austria, in 1908.

That's a photo of a true-to-life duplicate of the Venus of Willendorf below, with feet and part of its legs broken off and missing. The Venus figure displays an enlarged stomach and details of labia and breasts, while deemphasizing facial features such as the nose, eyes, and ears. Even the anus is carved into the figure, a feature not revealed in this view. Notice how the lack of prominent facial detail encourages the eye to focus on other, more sensual anatomical features.

Experts who have analyzed hundreds of figures like this one have concluded that Venus figurines had special significance in Cro-Magnon fertility rites. The statuettes not only suggest that Cro-Magnons respected (and perhaps even revered) women, but further, that they understood the cause-and-effect connection between sexual intercourse and birth.

True-to-life copy of The Woman of Willendorf shown on three of its four sides

A modern painting designed to show how the Willendorf Venus might appear if she were carved with more normal features not intended to emphasize her sensual nature.

  • Explore further the nature of prehistoric art and the Venus of Willendorf at Page 2 of Electricka's feature titled History of Recordings And Recording: tap or click here

Venus figurines are well known to archeologists, but the Cro-Magnon people are perhaps best known for their sketches and paintings on the walls of caves in Southwest France and Northern Spain.

Cro-Magnons are not the only species to have painted figures on Ice Age cave walls in these areas—over 150 Western European caves have been found bearing paintings created by various human subspecies, cultures, and settlements. But Cro-Magnon specimens are the greatest in number and are among the most sophisticated and beautiful; they express the most subtle aesthetic conceits and the best technical artistry.

With Cro-Magnon cave art in France and Spain, we see the first large scale, concrete symbolic expressions of human thoughts, the first human emotions and feelings expressed through artistic endeavor, and even, perhaps, the first objective statements of belief in the supernatural.

Numerous Cro-Magnon depictions of animals are found cave paintings especially at sites such as Lascaux and Eyzies-de-Tayac in France, and at Altamira in Spain, some surpassingly beautiful. Anthropologists speculate that these paintings had some magic or ritual importance to the people who painted them.

Animals, people, tools, weapons, and other objects are realistically and accurately depicted on these walls, demonstrating that Cro-Magnons appreciated art for its aesthetic merit as well for it's content—they exploited it for its effectiveness as a means of expression, and perhaps even for its ability to convey religious or spiritual feelings and ideas.

The pictures in these caves are so sophisticated, they validate the supposition that their painters were sufficiently talented to master deliberate distortion of the features and shapes of natural objects; they deliberately introduced distortions intended to express feelings and to make aesthetic points. Their skills are especially impressive, given that they were working almost in almost total darkness, without models to copy, and with crude and makeshift thirty-thousand and forty-thousand year old "brushes," media, and pigments.

From the high quality of their works, it's clear that these Cro-Magnons of thirty and forty thousand years past were not primitive or crude artistic amateurs. Before committing pictures to cave walls they worked to perfect their techniques. They experimented with and developed mediums, materials, tools, techniques, and stocks of graphic formulations. They taught themselves how to use images to represent depth and motion.

And the miracle doesn't stop at cave paintings. These ancient humans even fashioned and played musical instruments. They hand-carved Upper Paleolithic flutes from objects such as bird bones and ivory tusks that date as far back as 35,000 and 40,000 years.

The 35,000 year old mammoth ivory bone flute shown in the picture below is but one example. It was found in a area of southwestern Germany known as Swabia, less than a yard away from the oldest-known carving of a human, a Venus figurine.

35,000 year old Upper Paleolithic flute found in Swabia, Germany
  • Explore prehistoric cave wall paintings at Lascaux, France at The Muse Of Fine Arts feature titled Lascaux: tap or click here

What are we to make of Cro-Magnons? Did they tell stories?

As Aristotle observed in his Poetics, for a tragic fable or plot to be a complete whole it must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. To be valid, a story must be coherent.

Given their significant aesthetic, social, and technical accomplishments, it seems likely that Upper Paleolithic European Cro-Magnons possessed the anatomical and physiological equipment needed to support speech and the intelligence to formulate coherent and complete thoughts. They possessed the essential capabilities required to tell stories.

Paleontologists regard Cro-Magnons as the prototype of modern Homo sapiens sapiens. And modern homo sapiens sapiens tell stories. With so many similarities between Cro-Magnons and their anatomically modern counterparts, it seems likely that Cro-Magnons also told stories. We do not possess hard, cold scientific proof of this fact, and probably never will; but from a distance of forty thousand years, it seems certain that it could hardly be otherwise.

If Cro-Magnons did tell stories, their tales probably did not strongly resemble ours in form or genre or linguistic structure. Their characters were few in number and their narratives were short, simple, and to the point. But as Aristotle pointed out, if their stories were complete they would have had a beginning, a middle, and an end. And this they probably did.

And as we shall see in the next section, perhaps Cro-Magnons or other human species living in Upper Paleolithic Europe may even have taught themselves how to write crude, highly condensed vestiges of stories on cave walls and rock outcroppings.

graphic cave markers in upper paleolithic europe

One researcher has inspected graphic markings affixed by early artists on cave walls during the Upper Paleolithic age at fifty-two sites in southern France, Portugal, and Sicily. These marks or signs date from about 40,000 years ago to about 10,000 years ago.

This investigator found that seventy-five percent of these caves bear abstract geometric designs, the majority of which consist of geometric shapes such as lines, rectangles, triangles, ovals, circles, etc. She found that certain symbols in the caves are repeated in many of the caves and that for the most part the graphic signs are all members of the a given set consisting of only thirty-two signs.

Some subsets of these 32 signs are geographically localized in several caves nearby one another, as though they're associated with a territory inhabited by a specific group of artists located in close surroundings.

And remarkably, these signs do not appear only in European caves. Samples of early rock art engraved with these same signs have been uncovered on rocks spreading from Europe to far-away Indonesia.

The thirty-two Ice Age pictographs shown above are found in caves across Europe. What do they mean? What do they represent? Is it possible that they're pictograms or messages? Do they tell stories?

These European cave signs were inscribed over a thirty-thousand year span throughout a major portion of Europe. Some new signs were added to the initial sign inventory as time went on; but sixty-five percent remained in use throughout that entire time period. This fact suggests that their invention may trace back to a common point and time, perhaps in Africa, the time and place believed by most researchers to be the likely source of modern man.

Clearly, given that the same signs are found in widely separated caves over so long a period, graphic signs that resemble each other so closely are unlikely to be accidental or random occurrences. It's likely that the various artists who applied them to cave walls assigned the same symbolic meaning to each of them no matter when or where they were used. This systematic repetition of the same signs for so long a time at so many sites throughout Europe suggests that artists were making intentional choices about the images they chose to carve or paint, and that they deliberately placed the same combinations of different signs in juxtaposition with one another for a purpose.

These facts about this common set of geometric shapes are consistent with the notion that the signs held similar cultural significances for the different groups and generations who painted them. The wall and rock carvings certainly are not writing as we think of it today, but nevertheless they might comprise a set of symbolic graphic images that represent ideas in the same way that Egyptian hieroglyphics or Chinese logograms represent ideas. It's not unreasonable to suppose that, like these other writing systems, they send messages, make announcements, or even tell crude stories that their creators wished to make permanent by recounting them in or on stone surfaces.


Here's an interesting sidelight.

You may be aware of a well-preserved natural mummy named Ötzi, who is also known by a plethora of other names, including Ötzi, the Iceman, the Similaun Man, the Man from Hauslabjoch, the Tyrolean Iceman, Homo tyrolensis, and the Hauslabjoch mummy. These nicknames belong to a supposed hunter-trader who was accidentally discovered by alpinists in September 1991 in the Ötztal Alps. He also may have been a tribal leader who lived in that area during the Ice Age, between 3359 and 3105 BCE, near the Sikmilaun mountain and Hauslabjoch, a glacial region on the border between Austria and Italy.

The mummy called Ötzi as he looks today

Ötzi's body and belongings are currently on display in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, South Tyrol, Italy. Given that there is evidence of an arrowhead lodged in his left shoulder, it has been speculated that Ötzi may have been a victim of a ritual sacrifice, perhaps executed for being a chieftain, and that he did not die simply because of hazardous exposure during an unexpected winter storm.

Ötzi is the world's oldest known natural human mummy; he is the best preserved example of human remains ever found by science that dates that far back. As such, his remains have offered an unprecedented genetic, anthropomorphic, anatomical and cultural view of Copper Age Europeans, as well as invaluable insights into European populations at large who migrated to Europe before him, and their descendents.

Ötzi is so rich a treasure of scientific information that his body has undergone extensive and extremely sophisticated scientific investigation; and it's still undergoing active study and revealing new findings. One of the most important and puzzling aspects of this research are the tattoos he wears all over his body. He bears a total of 61 tattoos consisting of 19 groups of narrow short black lines ranging from 1 to 3 mm in thickness and from 7 to 40 mm long.

These tattoos include a number of groups of two or three narrow black parallel lines each running along the longitudinal axis of his body and on both sides of his lumbar spine, as well as two cruciform marks, one behind the right knee and one on the right ankle, and multiple parallel lines around the left wrist, all created from a pigmented fluid manufactured out of fireplace ash or soot. These figures were drawn by a finely carved sharply pointed bone needle dipped in the soot and repeatedly pricked into and under the skin, a tattoo process that must have caused Ötzi a lot of pain.

Radiological examination of Ötzi's bones shows that the positions of many of these marks on Ötzi's body correspond to the locations of pain-inducing age-conditioned or strain-induced degeneration, places that include medical conditions such as osteochondrosis and a slight spondylosis in the lumbar spine and wear-and-tear degeneration in the knee and especially in the ankle joints.

Reconstruction of Ötzi as he might have looked shortly before his death

Research into archaeological evidence for ancient tattooing has confirmed that Ötzi is the oldest tattooed human mummy yet discovered. Because each tattoo mark was produced by repeated painful needle punctures that penetrated the skin, scientists speculate that they may be related to pain relief treatments similar to acupressure or acupuncture. If so, Ötzi's medical treatments would have preceded similar Chinese treatments by at least 2,000 years.

Notice that the list of 32 cave wall signs shown in the preceding section includes a short straight line and a cruciform mark comparable to the straight lines; it also includes cruciform tattoo marks that run along Ötzi's body. Is it possible that Ötzi 's tattoo marks received their inspiration from the mysterious graphic cave marks found on ancient caves walls? Are they a form of writing that echoes the signs on walls found in Upper Paleolithic caves? Do the tattoos tell some kind of story or send some kind of message? Are the marks on his body clues to decoding these mysterious symbols?

  • Explore Ötzi further at the Wikipedia feature bearing the Iceman's name: tap or click here

Australian Aborigine songs and dances

Australian Aborigines provide yet another example of how far back in time storytelling may go. Aboriginal Australians are members of the Aboriginal race of Australia, the race indigenous to the Australian continent, which includes mainland Australia and the island of Tasmania.

In a genetic study conducted in 2011, researchers analyzed DNA in samples taken from strands of Aboriginal people's hair. They found evidence demonstrating that ancestors of the Australian Aboriginal population split off from ancestors of the European and Asian populations between 65,000 and 75,000 years ago—roughly 24,000 years before the European and Asian populations split off from each other. These Aboriginal ancestors migrated into South Asia and then into Australia, where they have stayed ever since. These findings suggest that modern Aboriginal peoples are the direct descendants of migrants who left Africa up to 75,000 years ago.

As far as we can tell, the traditions of modern day Aborigines, which include storytelling, go as far back as their origins, at least to about 65,000 years, if not more. Paintings they produce today which are based on ancient artifacts that have been unearthed suggest that they have been telling stories for that length of time, many of them unchanged.

Further, contemporary Aborigines retell their ancient stories by acting them out in ceremonies resembling modern day moving pictures. According to famous English naturalist David Attenborough, ancient Aborigine artists perform (and still perform) music, songs, and dances to envelop their audiences in a full multimedia experience designed to stimulate not only the eyes, but the ears as well. This "soundtrack," he explains, is what has given Aboriginal stories the power to survive for thousands of years.

  • Explore David Attenborough's personal experiences with Aborigine storytelling at Electricka's feature titled History Of Recordings and Recording: tap or click here

neanderthal and cro-magnon "overlap"

Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons not only live on today in their relics and art; they're still live inside us in very special and literal ways.

Phenotypical characteristics from these two groups were gradually transferred into ancient human populations through interbreeding with European humans who trod the earth while Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons were alive. As a result, as time went on their heritage became an integral part of the modern human population. This interbreeding transpired even though Neanderthals and other species who may have mated with ancient humans are alien species.

This idea is worth repeating. Just as we live on in our children after we are gone, Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons live on in the Homo sapiens sapiens peoples who populate the earth todayand not just metaphorically. Objective scientific research has determined that certain specific groups of contemporary moderns exhibit a significant number of genetic and phenotypic characters that are the same as those found in these progenitors. This has been proven to be a hard, irrefutable fact.

Said more precisely, subgroups of people alive today—members of the Homo sapiens sapiens species—share a significant number of anatomical traits with these other older races; they literally contain genes passed down to them from Cro-Magnon man (early Homo sapiens sapiens) and from Neanderthal man (Homo Neanderthalensis). These Homo sapiens sapiens subgroups who are alive today consist of modern humans who inhabit various regions of Africa and the Salute and Dordogne regions of France, as well as places in Poland and Hungary.

A picture illustrating the many similarities between Neanderthals and modern man. Guess which one is which.

The genetic commonalities between Cro-Magnons, Neanderthals, and modern humans are not mere suppositions or speculations; nor are they limited to relatively small isolated groups such as those in Africa and regions of France.

Gene researchers estimate that somewhere between two percent and four per cent of the genetic code in currently living Europeans and Asians at large derives from interbreeding between Homo sapiens sapiens and Neanderthals. These inherited genes are thought to play parts in causing Type 2 diabetes, Crohn's disease, lupus disease, and biliary cirrhosis. Also, Neanderthal genes inherited by some modern humans include those associated with people who smoke, as well as keratin filaments, the fibrous protein that make our skin, hair and nails tough.

Further, results of anthropological examinations and analyses of anatomical artifacts are consistent with and support the premise that the genes in these different species "overlap." The fact that the physical differences between ancient Cro-Magnon skull fossils and those of modern Europeans are no greater than those between living Eskimos and Africans or between pigmies and Europeans further support this conclusion.

The unavoidable result of findings like these is that current humans of the Homo sapiens sapiens species are the combined evolutionary product of Cro-Magnons, True Neanderthals, anatomically modern ancient humans, and possibly of other archaic Homo genus species who were contemporary with ancient humans and who interbred with them.

How much do we have in common with our Neanderthal ancestors? Treat yourself to a laugh by checking the photo at the right. It's a picture designed to illustrate the overlap between Neanderthals and modern man.

Can you guess which is which? That's a live modern male posing as a Neanderthal at the left; the other two figures are inanimate anatomical models reconstructed from properties of Neanderthal artifacts.

Insofar as they are almost anatomically and physiologically identical, these four Homo genus species—Neanderthals, Cro-Magnons, ancient humans, and modern man—probably were equipped with roughly similar brain power and exhibited similar social tendencies, behaviors, and artistic leanings. And since they shared these same qualities, it's likely that they told stories in one form or another.

What are we to make of prehistoric storytelling?

For some time groups of cooperating paleoarcheologists and neurologists have been using FDG-PET, MRI, and DTI brain-scanning imagery machines to chart neural regions of their brains, places that become active when the scientists manufacture hand tools matching those employed by members of certain groups of now-extinct human species.

These investigators believe that toolmaking affects the brain in distinctive ways. They are convinced that a perceptive understanding of toolmaking can help explain the prehistoric enlargement of man's brain, a physiological and anatomical phenomenon that took place in the Paleolithic epoch, that further, that the study of these effects can help answer a number of key questions about the mental and social development of mankind, such as the existence and nature of language and culture. They believe that their own brains are similar enough to those of their ancient forefathers that effects they see by scanning their own brains during and after toolmaking are indicative of similar changes that occurred in their deceased forerunners.

The scientists concentrate on tools used by groups of humans who lived between 2.6 million and 200,000 years ago, a period during which hominin brains nearly tripled in size. In part, they speculate that the invention and application of new toolmaking technologies by these human species placed demands on their brains that might explain this expansion as a result of natural selection.

The time period for their study spans most of the anthropological era known as the Lower Paleolithic, from about two million years ago to about 200,000 years ago. It excludes the Middle Paleolithic, from about 150,000 years ago to about 40,000 years ago, and it excludes the Upper Paleolithic, from about 40,000 years ago to about 10,000 years ago. Thus it excludes the last 200,000 years from the present and extends beyond the Lower Paleolithic by about 600,000 years.

Their scope of study is broad. The earliest fossils that have been proposed as members of the hominin lineage are Sahelanthropus tchadensis, a species which dates from seven million years ago; and the earliest fossils are members of the species Homo habilis, which evolved around 2.8 million years ago.

Homo habilis is a good subject for such a study because it's the first species for which there is clear evidence of the use of stone tools, and also because it began about 200,000 years before the occurrence of the rapid brain expansion, time enough for toolmaking to make an evolutionary impact. As you may recall, the brains of these early hominins were about the same size as that of a chimpanzee, and their main adaptation was bipedalism, an adaptation to terrestrial living, a lifestyle that might stimulate the need for tools. But Homo habilis is not the only subject for the study; all Homo species are included.

Over the Paleolithic's megayears humans have fashioned tools and other artifacts from a large variety of different kinds of materials, such as antlers, wood, clay, bone, clay, and stone. They have created implements ranging from stone axe blades with wooden handles tied on with thongs, to deer antler hammers and shovels, to knives and spears. They have used tools to make other tools or to make non-tools that improve their lot, such as blankets, cloth for clothes, sewing needles, huts, canoes and paddles, arrowheads for hunting or for weapons—the list goes on and on.

During the Paleolithic period, different hominin species independently developed a variety of skills and methods for working with a range of materials and forms such as these. Chief among them was the ability to use hand-held rocks as tools to shape a wide variety of other rocks. The purpose of these tools included the manufacture of artifacts and other tools.

In their study the imagery scanning scientists focused on a method for making rock tools known as knapping. In knapping, normally a rock tool is used to create a rock artifact. The artifact is held in one hand while it is being struck or pounded repeatedly by a rock tool held in the other hand. The craftsman chips off slivers and flakes one or two at a time. The process is repeated until the artifact has the desired form and is suitable for its intended purpose.

A high degree of skill is required to achieve the desired effect because both the striking rock and the rock being struck have to possess the correct properties for the purpose at hand, otherwise the process readily fails. Size, shape, stratification, and texture must all be right; and the desired properties for the tool are usually different from those of the artifact. Usually the craftsman chooses a rock for the tool is harder than the rock being forged; that way the tool holds together in one piece while rock being struck crumbles or fragments away.

The craftsman has to be very careful; he has to know his stuff. The rock being struck might crumble away or shatter apart if not struck in just the right spots at just the right angles with just the right amount of force by just the right point on the tool. The correct angles and forces for a rock continually change as it loses material during construction. Rocks can easily become misshaped as they are being formed, and have to be discarded. Tools break, change their shape, or wear through.

For reasons like these, the rock playing the role of the knapping tool has to be formed of the right material, shape, and hardness, as does the rock it strikes; and each usually must consist of a different kind of material. Further, if a rock being struck is not of uniform consistency, it may have to be discarded half way through the job, a condition that may only be discovered after part of it is chipped away.

Rock knapping is no easy job, a fact that the scientists on this project were well aware of before they started. But they persisted in studying rock toolmaking rather than other ways to make tools for a number of reasons.

One primary reason for studying rock toolmaking was that rock tools were one of the major kinds of tools hominins had employed in the Paleolithic epoch. Paleoanthropological investigations had proved that. In some areas they had been found in large quantities.

Also, other scientists had learned a lot about rock tools in the last century; excavations had been dug all around the world. Plenty of left-behind rock tool evidence was available for study, and other scientists had used it to discover how they had been made by ancient craftsmen. They taught themselves how to fabricate these kinds of rock tools by knapping them themselves.

Rock longevity was yet another reason. Rocks erode much more slowly than do objects made of other substances. Rock tool artifacts are relatively "plentiful," especially in archeological excavations, whereas only vestiges of prehistoric tools manufactured from organic materials remain anywhere.

The -lith in the word Paleolithic is a combing form meaning stone. The Paleolithic epoch is called the Stone Age for good reasons. It takes its name from the fact that stone tools were first made then and were manufactured by all hominin species throughout the era; antler, wood, and bone artifacts do not begin to appear in the fossil record until much later. Paleontologists can only wish that bone decayed more slowly; if it did they would have far more human and animal specimens to work with.

When they started their project, the scientists on this project benefitted from years of research on the subject of knapping done by other researchers. From them they knew about the kinds of tools, artifacts, and crafting techniques that the ancients had employed. They experimented by simulated these crafts as closely as possible and by actually performing them themselves with the same tools and materials as the ancients. They acquired and perfected their skills and knowhow until they could produce results identical to the ones they copied.

This starting phase was a harrowing undertaking for some newcomers to the project because the techniques were so hard to master. In fact, learning to knap raised their opinion of the species they were studying. Why did they go to these extremes?

The scientists are anatomically related to their Paleolithic forerunners by virtue of the fact that they are members of the Homo sapiens sapiens species. The scientists realized that what happened inside their brains and bodies while and after they knapped would likely resemble what had happened inside the brains and bodies of their knapper forerunners.

They understood that by using the same knapping tools, artifacts, methods, and skills as those employed by their ancient ancestors, they could examine their own brain activity with FDG-PET, MRI, and DTI brain-scanning imagery machines, and what they would see would be the same as what had gone on in the brains of their knapping forerunners. The scanned pictures produced by the modern toolmakers' brain activity would represent how different ancient species may have evolved.

Ancient species had learned to perfect their craft. Over long periods of time some became more skillful, using more sophisticated techniques to produce more complex and challenging tools or to deal with more difficult materials. The investigators were aware of such distinctions. They had learned to chisel a variety of increasingly more sophisticated and complex primitive tools because comparing their different affects during testing would enable them to explore a number of alternate scientific hypotheses and to evaluate speculations about these distinctions.

By replicating toolmaking skills employed by prehistoric humans in this way, the scientists might then be in a position to ask and attempt to answer a number of salient tempting questions for which conclusive answers heretofore have eluded other investigators.

Prominent among these questions is whether the practice of Stone Age toolmaking posed a formidable enough challenge to have spurred the physiological and anatomical increases in the function and size of homo species brains that science has observed. A second important question is whether toolmaking contributed to the nature and degree of neurological and cognitive human faculties associated with brain matter, faculties such as human language. The investigators also sought to confirm the possible joint interconnected evolutionary development of these various faculties. A set of questions with rather profound implications.

Depending on the question being studied at a given time, they scanned their brains with imaging machines while or directly after they were using their knapping tools; or they waited to scan their brains until after they finished a series of activities. When scanning their brains during or after toolmaking, the scientists were able to see the different regions of their brains that light up as or after they knap a particular tool.  They considered both the kinds of changes that take place in their brains and where in their brains the changes occur. They also looked for regions in their brains that grew or diminished in size over protracted periods after their experiments.

What did their tests show?

Making tools results in dynamic brain changes that take place while they were knapping and brain changes that gradually accumulate over time, both of which can be visually espied with the aid of different types of appropriate scanners.

Toolmaking aroused dynamic brain activity patterns in brain regions that were characteristic of the different tools and toolmaking techniques.

Extensive toolmaking gradually generates permanent brain changes in a toolmaker, such as growth in specific axon tracts, nerve fibers, and commissures (nerver fibers jpoining the right and left sides of the brain). That is, extensive toolmaking by an individual causes growth in different types of brain tissues known as white matter.

These dynamic brain patterns and white matter changes in the scientists running the tests mirrored what probably happened in the brains of their Paleolithic knapping counterparts.

The tools, artifacts, methods, and skills replicated by the scientist subjects possibly are indicative of the gross intelligence level of the ancient species groups who constructed them.

These discoveries about what happens to the brains of modern toolmakers have resulted in important new understandings about the connection between tool knapping and species evolution, and about the machinery that probably caused brain size evolution to take place. For instance, they have been able to demonstrate that fabricating more sophisticated tools requires increased cognitive control by the prefrontal cortex.

Diffusion sensor imaging (DTI) is an imaging technology suitable for mapping the structural changes in the white matter fiber tracts that serve as the brain's wiring. Using it, knappers have found that Paleolithic-style toolmaking caused permanent changes in the amount of growth and in growth patterns in certain specific white matter tracts of their brains, the tracts connecting the frontal and parietal regions of the brain.

These brain wiring changes took place in the scientists because of a brain property known as neuroplasticity. Changes like these can take place when an individual repeats an activity habitually, over and over, until the brain changes that occur while the activity is being performed become permanently affixed in the brain of the individual who undergoes it. Neuroplastic brain wiring changes can involve the ability to perform activities as varied as musicianship and boxing. They tend to occur extensively in all of us during a critical period in early childhood, while we are learning to get along in the world, but they also can occur throughout a person's lifetime, especially during periods of stress.

Neuroplastic changes do not occur in all facets of the brain, but when they do occur they can make a person better at performing behaviors such as problem solving, learning a new language, increasing the ability to focus attention, regaining body function due to a stroke, or recapturing some lost brain function from a brain trauma such as an auto accident.

The scientists doing the toolmaking experiments theorize that the brain Paleolithic changes that occurred at first in early human species were caused by a kind of adjustment to severe survival or traumatic challenges called phenotypic accommodation. Phenotypic accommodations can produce lasting adjustments to species without genetic change.

that help ensure a population's fitness for survival

Many other examples can be found.

henotypic accommodation have been caused by deliberate selective breeding on the part of commercial interests and scientific investigators. But other phenotypic accommodations have taken place throughout history by accident. For instance, natural causes were responsible for producing sockeye salmon populations with intense red coloration after they migrated into the ocean and ingested high levels of carotenoids.

Scientists other than those involved in the toolmaking tests have established that when henotypic accommodation is at work, temporary changes such as the dog and ermine examples just cited may spread "rapidly" to other members of an affected organism even without genetic modification, and later they may become permanent by means of a process called genetic assimilation.

Genetic assimilation is a process by which a phenotype originally produced in response to an environmental condition can later become genetically encoded for that condition by artificial selection, as in the case of the dogs and ermines; or they may be instigated by natural selection, as in the case of the red sockeye salmon.

These examples illustrate that animals can change fundamentally when they find themselves in situations where one or a few members in their gene pool experience conditions putting them under severe psychological or behavioral evolutionary stress or trauma.

In the case of Paleolithic toolmakers, toolmaking may have started with an evolutionary external stress that produced a brain rewiring accommodation in one or more members of a group. Since the entire population was more likely to survive because of the adaptation, others in the group also were favored by the change, which helped ensure the entire group's fitness for survival.

Moreover, toolmaking may have spread within this ancient population group because of genetic assimilation. At first the brain rewiring that started with only one or a few individuals may have spread throughout this group even without producing a genetic change in any of the population. But then, starting with the toolmakers, it spread without genetic change in the toolmaker's progeny or in any of the others—spread from these few individuals to their children and cohorts by means of genetic assimilation; and that later it caused a lasting genetic accommodation. Thus, Paleolithic toolmaking may have triggered a neuroplastic accommodation that eventually caused ancient man's brain to expand and permanently become more intelligent.

Yes, the more these toolmaking researchers knapped, the more their white matter changed and grew in size. And because this kind of growth correlates with growth in other human intellectual capabilities—faculties such as motivation, self-control, and planningthese knapping researchers believe that their toolmaking study supports their supposition that Paleolithic toolmaking helped archaic species learn to motivate, control themselves, and plan—that toolmaking helped early human species shape the modern mind.


So far, does all this research just give you a headache, or does it serve other purposes as well?

"What does clapping two rocks together have to do with storytelling," you might ask? "What does knapping lead us to surmise about prehistoric storytelling?"

In part, it adds credence to the notion that the ancients could communicate with one another by means of gestures, organized body motions, or proto-language. If toolmaking contributed to the development of speech and other intellectual faculties the way these scientists believe, it seems likely that it contributed to the development of storytelling as well.

But that conjecture alone does not ensure that the ancients could tell stories; it only takes us part of the way. Speaking and storytelling go hand in hand; for the ancients to have told stories, they also must have possessed the capacity to deal with truly abstract ideas, and therefore eventually to become capable of associating sounds such as grunts or phonemes or words with thoughts.

Another important investigation by these scientists helps us take the next step; it sheds light on whether ancient species could tell stories. It involves a region of the brain known as Broca's area, a place in the frontal lobe of the dominant hemisphere of the typical hominin brain.

Researchers other than the knappers have confirmed that Broca's area performs functions linked to speech production and language processing. Functional MRI (fMRI) studies have identified activation patterns in Broca's area that are associated with and contribute to computations involving language tasks such as language comprehension, speech-associated gestures, speaking, etc. These studies have demonstrated that Broca's area in modern man participates in computations related to music, mathematics, and the understanding of complex manual actions.

The knappers' fMRI findings substantiate this notion that Broca's area functions as a motor center for speech in modern humans. Broca's area not only  interprets body language and gestures, it assembles and decodes speech sounds.

Consistent with this finding is the idea that the neural substrate that regulated motor control in our human ancestors probably was modified over time to enhance their cognitive and linguistic abilities. That is, the primitive Broca's area in ancient Homo species that long ago was busy controlling anatomical motions like those involved in gesturing or toolmaking also picked up the job of computing tasks such as language comprehension, speech-associated gestures, and speaking itself. And further, by doing these different jobs together, Broca's area played a role in interconnecting and interrelating their various functions.

Knappers have conclusively established that toolmaking affects the growth of the neural substrate that contacts Broca's area. Broca's area exercises motor control over the various faculties associated with speech, such as language comprehension, speech-associated gestures, and speaking. It also exercises motor control over toolmaking. This connection between toolmaking and speech helps substantiate the theory that language and tool-crafting skills evolved together and that consequently toolmaking proficiency is a reasonable index for the evolution of speech.

But was toolmaking a causal factor in the development of speech? We don't know.

Knappers surmise that Broca's area played roles in past species similar to those it plays today in anatomically modern man. They suspect that Broca's area helped ancient toolmakers acquire the ability to communicate just as it does in modern humans.

Probably Broca's area was a key part of the brain that helped the ancients combine body movement with language. It probably a place where sign language began. Studies of subjects who speak American Sign Language and English suggest that the human brain may have recruited brain systems that had previously evolved to perform more much earlier and more basic functions, and that these brain circuits may have been tapped to work together to help create language. The observation that language processing circuits in brain frontal areas are activated when people observe hand shadows is further evidence that human language may have evolved from existing neural substrates that evolved for and from gesture recognition.

Further, they note that the inferior frontal gyrus convolution functions to control when the vocal tract opens and closes during syllable production. It's widely considered by experts to be a controller of the motor aspect of speech production.

They conclude from all this that it's reasonable to suppose that some form of body language came first, probably followed by coarse sign language, probably followed by crude speech. This view is consistent with one of the popular scientific models for the origin of language which describes how modern language might have evolved. It theorizes that vocal communication was initially used to complement a far more dominant preexisting mode of communication based on gestures. Human language might have evolved as the evolutionary refinement of this form of body language, a communication system that was already present in lower primates such as chimps, apes or their predecessors and that was based on a set of hand and mouth goal-directed action representations.

This model for how speech began contends that physical gestures were translated into abstract ideas by interpreting the movements of other people as meaningful actions with an intelligent purpose. It argues that over time the evolutionary ability to predict the intended outcome and purpose of a given set of movements eventually gave Broca's area the capacity to deal with visual observations of physical movements by others, and eventually to deal with truly abstract ideas, and therefore to become capable of associating meaningful sounds (words) with abstract meanings.

Knappers believe that their experience with tool-knapping adds weight to this model. They contend that stone knapping and tool building are among the sets of body movements that have caused speech and associated cognitive capabilities to emerge from hand motions. And in turn, they contend that Broca's area played a significant part in the technological development of toolmaking skills by prehistoric peoples throughout the ancient past.

The results of their toolmaking imaging investigations have led knappers "to propose that neural circuits, including the inferior frontal gyrus, underwent changes to adapt to the demands of Paleolithic toolmaking and then were co-opted to support primitive forms of communication using gestures and perhaps vocalizations." The growth in white matter circuit connections to the gyrus that they observe from napping certainly adds weight to their reasoning.

They believe that toolmaking helped ancient man acquire the ability to manage and control his interpersonal communications and to combine the ability to communicate with the ability to form sensible ideas. Not only did toolmaking spur the evolution of human language, it helped expand brainpower and develop human culture.

Stay tuned. These investigators plan to put this hypothesis to the test—to show unambiguously that modern human language evolved through natural selection, and that it was caused at least in part by gyrus cell growth resulting from prehistoric stone toolmaking. If they are able to accomplish this proof, the demonstration that man's ability to tell stories likely evolved from this process lays ahead...


We've covered the matter of how human speech may have begun, but by no means are we finished with our story about prehistoric storytelling. There's far more to the story of how storytelling evolved than the mere acquisition of speech. Stories and speech are not the same thing; stories can be "told" in a number of ways, not just by word of mouth. And the manner in which a story is delivered has a lot to do with it how it's received. Speech is not writing; prose is not poetry; acting is not narrationthese and many other factors play a part in deciding what a story really means.

First, we can point out that it's possible to tell a story with language ranging from as little as a grunt accompanied by facial expressions and body motions up to a single clause or phrase.

As noted above, perhaps at first ancient people started communicating with each other by making signs or brutish sounds and grunts whose significance was demonstrated by reenactments of things they were showing to each other or were doing—by a primitive sort of show and tell. Because communication helped species become more successful and survive, communication skills evolved and developed. Brutish sounds and gestures became associated with more organized body movements—body language; gestures gradually became more complex, content-ridden and expressive.

In subsequent evolutionary phases, perhaps unarticulated oral forms of expression evolved into less primitive oral forms; people benefitted from better communication about the things they saw each other doing. As species evolved, they advanced intellectually; they performed more complex physical tasks which helped them improve hunting, cooking, shelter building, and other survival activities.

Sign language kicked in somewhere along the way, as a means to visually convey what needed to be "said." Sign language, which is a variety of body language, slowly expanded in linguistic intricacy, richness of interrelated ideas, and sophistication of thought in parallel with these other advances. So also did vocalization. At first oral expressions augmented and complemented gesturing and sign language; later actual speech appeared, became more dependable and versatile than signing, and eventually all but replaced it.

Judging from the linguistic complexity of human speech today, probably phonemes, clipped words, and sentence fragments appeared first, gradually followed by sign language, followed by fully-spoken coherent thoughts uttered in complete sentences. Single and multiple paragraphs followed thereafter. It's likely that body language and coarse speech such as grunts or phonemes became intermixed in single utterances and were interspersed with more advanced forms of speech when they finally emerged. Probably all the different ways to communicate hung on with each other indefinitely. According to Evolution, if something old still works, you might as well use it until something better comes along.

Eventually graphic markers, signs, symbols, phonemes, pictographs, characters, letters, or words representing elementary thoughts may have been traced on the ground or on other soft surfaces to record ideas that formerly had only been uttered. Recording ideas in stone or other lasting materials may have both preceded and lagged the verbal telling of complete thoughts.

Some scientists, including the brain-scanning knappers described above, reason that language and tool-crafting skills evolved together. And because tool-making leaves solid rock artifacts behind it that can be dug up, dated, and tracked through time, it's feasible for them to conclude that the coincidence between speech and tools justifies tool-crafting to serve as a practical index for tracing ephemeral events such as the chronological advent and development of speech.

Schools of research that subscribe to this thesis claim to be able to trace the origin and evolution of speech in this manner, even though ephemeral acoustical sounds such as speech cannot be traced directly, by themselves, because they are transient.

But other researchers discount the concept that toolmaking and speech are causally interconnected, among them are those who include the study of ancient toolmaking in their scope of work. Many remain unconvinced. They discount the viability of toolmaking as an index to the development of speech and take a different approach to uncovering when and how and where speech may have begun.

These scientists study the origination and evolution of the human species mainly by digging up and examining fossils and other kinds of concrete physical remains, by assessing ancient climate conditions, by analyzing materials, etc. They base their conclusions on direct evidence—on quantitative analysis of concrete objects exhibiting measureable parameters. From them they infer how ephemeral events like speech and cultural behavior may have evolved.

Other paleontologists and anthropologists like these with a specialized focus on toolmaking, researchers who do not subscribe to the theory that toolmaking played a role in man's acquisition of speech, also have found physical evidence suggesting that organs capable of speech were present in True Neanderthals.

Either way it's likely that ancient Homo species could speak, however fitfully that may have been.


Surely the practice of storytelling was born somewhere and someplace during this progressive evolution toward speech, especially among one or more of the intelligent human subspecies. It may have started in different places and at different times for any of them. It may have been lost to one group and been independently discovered in another.

Probably the first stories to be told by a species were nonfictional. It's likely that fictional stories came later because fictional ideas have to be dreamt up out of whole cloth by a storyteller's imagination, a more complex sophisticated brain process that would need more time to evolve into being. Probably at first these nonfictional stories recounted only events, people, or animals that a storyteller had personally experienced or had directly observed others experiencing with his own eyes.

Only later did a species' stories begin to deal with imagined events, people, or animals. The made up events and creatures in these new kinds of fictional stories were just like the real nonfictional ones the storyteller had personally encountered, but were embellished by his imagination.

Regardless of whether their tale was nonfictional or fictional, storytellers jumped, fell, shouted, threw spears, ate and drank, cried and laughed, and otherwise reenacted things they'd done themselves or seen others do.

At first stories probably were recounted exclusively with body motions augmented by primitive sounds. After people learned to speak fluently and robustly among themselves, no doubt crude forms of speech served to supplement physical storytelling. Thereafter, as speech expanded in scope, content, power of expression, and clarity, the tables were turned. Speech became the primary medium for telling stories, and actions such as jumping served to complement cruder communications such as finger pointing accompanied by grunts or barks or eye squints.


Does this account of how storytelling may have begun sound plausible? At best it's only a wild speculation. Just when and how modern-style prose speech utterances began to be commonly and frequently used among people to exchange ideas and information is still a deep mystery which has only recently begun to be unlocked.

How storytelling may have begun is even more of a mystery. How and why did the birth of language influence the birth of storytelling? What can speculations about language evolution lead us to surmise about prehistoric storytelling?

These are legitimate questions. After all, the ability to speak and the ability to tell stories are not the same thing. The ability to speak by itself is not enough to ensure that ancient man could tell stories. Being able to tell a story calls for more intellectualization than being able to communicate gruffly by speaking: it calls for raconteurs capable of assembling a logical sequence of events into a conceptual whole that makes sense and has a point, for storytellers who have an inclination and motivation to do so.

We've all observed that modern humans possess the anatomical traits, mental agilities, and propensities necessary to tell stories; it's a self-evident inherent faculty resident in almost everyone. Children spontaneously makeup stories to tell each other and adults; adults admonish children "not to tell stories," meaning not to lie about the fairy tales they've made up out of whole cloth. High school students can write stories about what they did on their summer vacation without cringing, at least some of them.

Since modern people freely and copiously compose stories, is it a far fetched idea to consider that ancient Homo species such as Neanderthals, Cro-Magnons, or Aussie Aborigines had the capacities and inclinations to tell stories as well?

It's a good guess that they did, but sadly, whether or not they truly did so requires a depth of knowledge that's currently beyond the reach of science. We can be reasonably confident that ancient bodies and brains were structured like modern ones, albeit not identically; but we cannot be sure that they functioned in the exactly same ways that ours do.

True, the fact that ancient Homo species genomes were only anatomically similar to ours and not genetically equivalent virtually guarantees that we will never be able to project with surety from their bones alone that they told stories. Paleontologists have not yet discovered cave wall carvings that exhibit story writings or other hard evidence to this effect, and it's unlikely that they ever will.

And scientifically gathered and arranged fossil skulls gathering dust in musty boxes do not yield ancient sounds or thoughts or sights. Certainly we will never be able to invade the perpetual sanctity of their ancient minds and hearts to discover whether they actually were inspired to tell one another about their adventures.

And no matter in what direction you turn, it's hard to imagine that science will ever find ways to revisit what went on in the minds of ancient men.

But you never know; a time may come when we'll all be surprised. Look at what imagery technology is uncovering about the brain's operation; look at what the science of genetics is uncovering about our species' prehistoric past.


Yes, science is accomplishing wonders once thought to reside beyond our ken. So bear with us if we wax eloquent for a moment. Let's suppose that one day proof does come to light that ancient man did tell stories...what might that signify?

Why did storytelling begin? Why is it seemingly ingrained in human nature?

Storytelling is ingrained in human nature because stories are accounts of the human experience. Stories relate an author's views about what humans think about or go through as they live and in order to live. Storytelling is a facility that may well have begun and evolved in the human psyche because stories contribute to man's ability to survive.

Brain size may have had a lot to do with the who/what/when/where/and why of stories: As already noted, the brain of the early hominid genus Australopithecus had a volume of about 400 cc, not much larger than that of the great apes. But between 2 million and 700,000 years ago, the size of the brain of Homo erectus doubled. A second major increase in Homo sapiens brain volume occurred between 500,000 and 100,000 years ago.

By one reckoning, the human brain today has a volume of 1,350 cc. Thus, in less than 4 million years, a relatively short time in evolutionary terms, the hominin brain grew to three times the size it had achieved in 60 million years of primate evolution.

Scientists' speculations for the causes of these evolutionary brain expansions include development of the precise motor skills, memory, and planning abilities required to manufacture tools; development of the ability to track and predict the location of hunted animals ; creating, assimilating, and following of complex societal rules; and, as we've already noted at some length, the development of  language.

A more refined measurement of contemporary brain size, one based on measurements of a number of participants of European ancestry, indicates an average adult brain volume of 1,130 cc for women and 1,260 cc for men. There is, however, substantial variation in this figure among the individuals and groups tested. For instance, a test of forty-six adults of European descent of age twenty-two to forty-nine found an average brain volume of 1,273.6 cc for men and and 1,131.1 cc for women. But brains of the individual men in this study ranged from 1,052.9 cc to 1,498.5 cc; and brains of individual women ranged from 974.9 cc to 1,398.1 cc.

In passing, it's interesting to observe that measurements of approximately 20,000 crania from 87 populations worldwide have revealed that indigenous arctic peoples possess the biggest brains in the world, with an average volume of 1,443 cc, followed by East Asians and Europeans. Among the latter, Italians have the biggest brains.

With so large a fluctuation, it's difficult to assign a reliable figure for a brain size that can serve to indicate how much brain power is required to write a story. Nevertheless, we'll try.

Based on facts unearthed by paleontological and anatomical research, it's unlikely that any kind of storytelling went on at all among species whose brain size was less than, say, between 800 cc or 900 cc or 1,000 cc. Of course, this is only a guess.

Suppose, then, that storytelling began first among Homo species that fulfill this requirement for brain size. if correct, this fact would point to species active in Europe during the Late Pleistocene epoch or even beforehand, in the far reaches of Neanderthal or Cro-Magnon or Aborigine pasts.

Given their ancient age and brain size of about 1,600 cc, Neanderthal storytelling may go back a very long way, as far as 300,000 years in Europe and 600,000 years before that in Africa. With their 1,600 cc brain capacity, Cro-Magnon storytelling may go as far back as the emergence of this group in Western Europe some 40,000 years ago, if not earlier, to their East African beginnings some 100,000 to 200,000 years ago.

Australian Aborigine dances are a form of storytelling that could go as far back as their migration to Australia over 30,000 years ago, if not before that with their forefathers in Europe and Asia 65,000 to 75,000 years ago. A possible genetic mutation in Africa 60,000 years ago may have "rewired" the Homo sapiens brain in some critical way, possibly allowing for a significant advance in speech capability that also may mark the start of storytelling.

Whatever their origins, stories told by and among these peoples certainly would have focused on subjects and events that were important to their originators for describing and commenting on their own, local circumstances and experiences. The views and observations expressed in these stories would have been deeply affected by the human conditions in which their authors and audiences existed.

Whatever the species that began to tell stories, it's likely that storytelling was invented independently at different times in different places by a number of human subspecies, or possibly even by subspecies of non-Homo genres. Probably storytelling happened separately and repeatedly in different groups living in particular caves, villages, tribes, small and temporary groups, or gatherings. Eventually storytelling took hold in a particular faction or factions and began to spread throughout a small territorial region of cooperating insiders. Possibly the practice spread from there to one or more outsider groups and regionsthere's no way to be sure.

What were these first stories like? That would depend largely on the nature and nurture of the storytellers.

Roughly speaking, the creature we call man is believed to be approximately half the product of his inborn nature and half the product of his nurture. Scientific studies substantiate the principle that the individual personalities of individuals belonging to a group develop out of interactions between these two influencesnature and nurtureand that they spread throughout a group to help form a culture.

Therefore it's likely that the personal characteristics of these original storytellers would have been determined partly by the set of external factors that appertained during their lives—by living conditionsand partly by their innate personal qualities, such as mental ability or mindset. In current parlance, the character of ancient storytellers would have been fashioned by the two major factors that most determine the human character: nature and nurture. In turn, the stories they created would reflect their storytelling skills and personal predispositions; they would reflect how they felt about themselves and their surroundings.

Late Pleistocene Homo sapiens storytellers were basically the same kinds of people as their modern anatomical counterparts, so it's reasonable to assume that both ancient and modern temperaments were formed by a combination of a storyteller's mental, physical, and emotional traits. Thus it's easy to imagine that the stories the ancients wrote were influenced by the same kinds of things as they are todayby interaction between a storyteller's genetic inheritance (nature) on one hand, and between the characteristics, key events, and situations which made up his life (nurture) on the other hand.

Since modern and ancient hominim brains greatly resemble each other, we judge that ancient storyteller minds must have interacted with their surroundings in ways basically similar to the ways that modern storyteller minds interact with their surroundings today. Contrarily, if modern storytellers could be transported into the distant past, we judge that in all likelihood they would be affected by their ancient surroundings in basic ways similar to the ways their ancient storyteller counterparts would be affected—this would happen, even though the modern storytellers probably would undergo extremely different reactions to their environments.

We know that ancient living conditions were greatly different from one another in different geographic places even at the same time, and that they evolved radically over time during the ancient past. Thus it's safe to conclude that ancient stories that might have been produced at one time or place were drastically different from one another. That is, the contents and viewpoints expressed in these stories would change from time to time and place to place depending upon the characteristics, key events, and situations which made up the essential components of their lives. Surely, among the subjects and events that would have been accounted for by these stories would have been human birth, growth, emotionality, aspiration, conflict, and mortality in the Homo sapiens sapiens world.

And further, regardless of who he might be, a storyteller's temperament profoundly affects his story's purpose, contents, and subject matterthat is, his story's "literary" and "linguistic" characteristics. Since ancient storyteller temperaments and living conditions varied all over the map, probably their stories did the same. The ways stories were told probably varied so greatly, it's hard to render a plausible guess at what they might have been been like at any one place or time.

Thus it's safe to deduce that over the long expanses of paleontological time, the literary characteristics and content of stories must have changed in momentous ways to reflect radical new living states and conditions, cultures, lifestyles, and methods for recounting them. And further, even while attitudes, dispositions, and moods have evolved tremendously, brains and bodies also have changed. Since the precise nature of these details seriously affect the particular kinds of stories people tell and their specific literary and linguistic characteristics, new stories also must have altered constantly and significantly so as to reflect and incorporate the drastic alterations taking place in the human condition.

The only inferences we can safely make about their stories is that their subjects concerned the things storytellers did and the issues that plagued or bolstered their minds—their struggles for survival, adventures, and ponderings—their loves, hates, hopes, joys, sorrows, and dreams. These are the issues that affect storytellers today. And it's likely their stories were told in the present or past tense, with settings taken from their immediate or very recent physical surroundings.

And the nature and nurture of other evolved Homo species varied so greatly, the character of Pleistocene epoch stories told before the appearance ancient man  (if there were any) is even fuzzier. We are even less sure about whether, when, or how storytelling may have originated or evolved faired where species other than man are concerned, or with Homo species in times prior to those of ancient man.

Whatever the time period in which storytelling actually may have began, we can be sure that human nature has remained basically unchanged for at least the past 30- or 40- or even possibly 75,000 thousand years. Mindsets, feelings, and emotions inevitably have changed over the millennia, but psychology, emotion, sensation, thought, and mind have not. However primitive these ancient peoples and their stories may have been at first, the earliest authors must have cared about and treated subjects such personality, behavior, religion, philosophy, perception, history, art, literature, sociology, psychology, sex, and family just as they do today.

Yes, inherent human nature has remained stolid, even while the conditions under which ancient and modern humans have lived have varied drastically, often wrenchingly, throughout history. Factors such as those that comprise the human condition still profoundly affect the lives of human beings today, as they did in the past, even though details regarding the specific nature of these conditions have roiled and convulsed unceasingly. And even if mankind and human nature have continued to evolve since the Cro-Magnon period, essential change has proceeded at so miniscule a rate since then it cannot have materially affected the underlying way authors write and readers read.

And indeed, stories and people and life are still changing. Thus, as with their ancient and recent predecessors, storytellers today live with constant permutation; they speak or write about the world in which they live and about how they think even through the exact nature of the conditions they address are in flux. They alter their methods for telling these stories unendingly, as well as their means for communicating and retelling them.

But no matter to what extent or exactly how stories may have started or variedregardless of man's exact genetic lineage or the lineage of other species—early Cro-Magnon humans, Australian humans, Aborigine humans, and Neanderthal humans are but a few examples of peoples, times, and places where storytelling may actually have begun. These ancient hominim cultures illustrate how old and widespread the practice of storytelling really was and still is, and how ingrained it must be in the nature of all sufficiently intelligent species. It's likely that storytelling was invented independently at different times by different human cultures, and possibly even by other subspecies.

evolution of the storyan historic overview

Where stories are concerned, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Of course some things have changed mightily since prehistoric times; speech is just one of them. Man's ability to speak has transformed by stages from grunts and gestures to sign languages to articulated discourses. Very different spoken languages have proliferated across the globe since those earliest of days. Over six thousand spoken languages are purported to exist today.

In the good old days, hundreds and thousands of years before writing or printing were invented, there's little doubt that people around the world told stories to one another orally, just as they do today. But back then they whispered or shouted them out person to person, recounted them to one another aloud and face-to-face. In most places in our modern world the majority of stories are told and heard aloud, not printed. You hear and see them played, recorded, and displayed on radios, televisions, CD players, computers, and movies.

Speaking seems to us to be the most natural way to tell a story in part because the ability to speak arrived before the ability to write, and we're accustomed to it. And mechanically, it's far easier to say something to someone than to write it down. The number of written languages today are far fewer than the number of spoken languages because of reasons like these; and for reasons like these stories were narrated long ago, even without benefit of formal written languages.

Storytelling and speech are intertwined, but speech and storytelling are not the same thing. Speech serves many purposes, storytelling being only one of them. And in turn, storytelling serves other purposes; it takes on other non-oral forms and employs media of its own.

In fact, storytelling may have started primarily as an auditory experience, and it continues as such. But where serious issues are concerned, storytelling has slowly shifted from an auditory to a visual experience. The most serious and complex stories are beyond the scope of speech and its simple limitations. Novels, essays, biographies, technical journals and other sophisticated written forms and genres are capable of expressing conceits that speech is unsuited for.


Even while speech has metamorphosed, storytelling has done so, but in its own ways.

No doubt themes and topics in prehistoric stories were dissimilar to today's themes and topics. Storytellers communicated what had happened to them that day or the day before, ranting in fear or laughing hysterically as they acted out their exploits and those of their mates. They relived their scary and dangerous adventures, told jokes, or celebrated their mighty, life-saving triumphs. They recounted them in the dark of night next to camp site fires or standing on rocks in broad daylight.

Of course, back then radios and cell phones didn't exist. Out of necessity, hunter-gatherers, Neolithic cliff and cave dwellers, and early agrarians recited their tales orally from memory or by inventing them as they went along on trails and trips, whispering, shouting, and gesturing in canoes, dug outs, caves or thatched huts.

Bronze and Iron Age bards recounted their stories orally for much the same reasons and in much the same ways. But by these times speech had advanced to the point where language had become an art form. They made their marks by singing or even shouting epic poems of their own construction, or retold adventures recounted to them by other bards or laymen.

Henry Fielding as he looked in 1743 at age 47, about 11 years before his death

In the Middle Ages, another bard tradition sprang up. These bards spoke or sang stories to delighted audiences far and wide throughout Europe, stories often accompanied by music they played themselves. Whether standing on rocks for a better view or kneeling on benches surrounded by admirers in plazasthey didn't care. They were satisfied to trade their wares for a morsel of food, a night's lodging, and a few meager life comforts, in homes, taverns, villas, castles, or palaces. Mostly by themselves they toured and wandered between villages and towns, first in southern France, later in England and Europe generally.

People didn't stop communicating stories by word of mouth in a serious way until much, much later, long after writing was invented in China, and separately in Mesopotamia, in about the third millennium, BCE. Nor did they stop after printing was invented in China around the year 1041.

No doubt, writing's invention advanced the cause of story telling, but initially writing can hardly be credited with diminishing the need for the oral variety. Chiseling into a tablet or obelisk with a stone or copper blade or carving into soft clay tablets with wedge-shaped reed styli—this was hard, tedious, and slow work. These ways of relating stories can hardly be construed as rewarding; they discouraged creativity.

When writing came along, story telling didn't change much for a long time. Oral story-telling still predominated. Painstakingly inscribing abstract symbols onto papyrus or paper sheets may have recorded or disseminated knowledge for posterity, but it can hardly be said to have generated enthusiasm or aroused passions. And best of all, a listener didn't have to acquire an education to understand a story if it was told out loud in a language he or she spoke every day.

Even after it became feasible to print and circulate stories on paper, people didn't stop enunciating their stories; they continued for hundreds and thousands of years thereafter, in puppet shows, plays, in carts and coaches, and by reading them aloud to one another in bed. Fairy tales, legends, and myths, are but three examples.

But the sheer quantity of verbal storytelling by bards, friends, and family started to decline after Gutenberg perfected the moveable type printing press in post-Middle Age Europe around 1493. Prior to that time, readers of written stories had been restricted mainly to cloistered clerics, a few readers and professional translators, and well-placed aristocrats or rich traders who could afford the luxury of literate servants or scribes, or who could call upon educated friends or relatives, or who had been taught to read themselves. Hand inscribed narrations were either too expensive, were censored on religious grounds, or were socially incendiary. Most significant of all, they couldn't be readily interpreted by the illiterate masses.

The situation changed gradually but decidedly after that. After printing became practical, it was possible to copy and disseminate relatively cheap stories printed on paper to a widespread audience, many of whom by then had been taught to read. Narratives of all kinds became widely published and purchased, so that by the time seventeenth century pre-novels and proto-novels arrived on the scene, these narratives with their novel-like overtones were printed on paper by presses and sucked up.

As a result, the practice of telling stories by word of mouth declined rapidly after the middle ages because there was less need for it and because it was inherently more challenging than shipping books. Personally passing a story from one person to another by word of mouth called for costly, uncomfortable, dangerous, and time-consuming  travel between homes and castles in villages and towns; and a listener had to come face to face with a speaker to hear a book read out loud, a potentially risky, unhealthy, and unpleasant undertaking.

As already noted, buying books, checking them out of a library, or reading stories via electronic media have today become a very popular undertaking around much of the world; fictional and nonfictional stories and other forms of literature enjoy unparalleled, virtually universal acceptance and favor. If they were alive today, Middle Ages and Renaissance readers of prior centuries would no doubt be astounded by the number of old books on library shelves and the number of new books being written and read, and by the size and activity of the reading public.

Of course, novels are among the many kinds of books written, published and read today; but novels haven't typically undergone a reception by readers similar in all respects to that received by other kinds of narratives. Novels tend to tell stories in special and different ways compared to many other kinds of books. Seldom if ever does a novel reader pronounce his or her story aloud to someone else, in the manner of the old bards. For the most part, today's readers still behave the same way toward novels as their predecessors did in previous centuries. They behave quietly, exercising thoughtfulness, moderation, and respect; they care about the characters, subject matter, and content; they concentrate, even when what they read makes them laugh out loud. As far as the reading public is concerned, all's still quiet on the novel front.

As in earlier times, for the most part people who read novels today are careful to ponder and absorb what they're reading, to read slowly, and to keep their novels handy for rereading. While reading and even afterward they become part of the story. When they finish reading, they may loan their novels to friends or donate them to charities or public libraries rather than throw them away.

Can you imagine what it might be like to read a novel to yourself or another person out loud? That's just about the last thing most readers want to do. It's hard work, it's distracting, and it destroys concentration. It wouldn't at all be the same experience as silent reading, would it? Yet some authors, even famous ones, have done so for a fee or to gain attention or fame. Dickens was famous for reading sections from his works out loud to paying audiences.

modern Novels compared with modern short stories and novellas—a Literary perspective

The first narratives to even vaguely resemble novels didn't emerge until the Italian Renaissance in the fourteenth century. Nor did the renaissance Italians initially call their fictional prose stories novels back then. They found other names to give them, names such as novellos.

A renaissance novella is a tale or short story of the type contained in Boccaccios' Decameron, one of the earliest and most iconic of novellas, which was published in the mid-fourteenth century. How do Renaissance novellas and short stories relate to each other? How do they relate to modern novels and modern short stories?

Gustauve Flaubert

Novella is an Italian word meaning "a new kind of story." It's a name for certain kinds of Italian and French works written between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It was coined then to distinguish between a short story and a then-newly invented kind of work—a new literary form—that was longer and more complicated than a short story. Back then in Italy, novellas were short fictional prose narratives that were longer and more complex than short stories; they were a literary form of longer and more complex short storiy than people were accustomed to when they were introduced.

The renaissance novella's influence was profound in its hey day. Because it was a fictional narrative, it helped inspire the pre-novels, proto-novels, and modern novels that came much later; but despite its relative complexity compared with the short story, the novella it is definitely is not the same thing as a novel.

The modern novella, also sometimes called the novelette, is a literary form being written by some modern authors today. In contrast with the renaissance novella, the modern novella's literary form is defined as a fictional prose narrative longer than a modern short story but shorter than a modern novel. Its role is to bridge the length and complexity gap between a modern novel and a modern short story. As such its literary properties, style, and sophistication resemble those of modern novels in many respects.

But take care; don't equate the renaissance novella to the modern literary form, even though the two different novellas bear the same name and fill a similar role. Bearing the same name and filling the same role are about as close as these two different kinds of novellas come to each other. A modern novella's literary and linguistic properties differ markedly from those of the renaissance novella. The Muses will explore some of these differences later.

What are some of the literary differences between the modern novella and its modern companions, the modern short story and the modern novel? Generally, a modern novella features fewer conflicts and is less complex than than a modern novel, but is more complicated than a typical short story. And modern novella conflicts have more time to develop than they do in modern short stories.

Further, unlike modern novels, modern novellas usually are not divided into chapters and are often intended to be read at a single sitting, the same way that short stories are intended to be read. White space is often used to divide a modern novella's sections instead of chapters, the way that novels are usually divided. In this way, novellas are more likely than modern novels to maintain a single effect, as do short stories; they tend to retain a unity of impression, a hallmark of the short story, even though they contain more highly developed characterization and more luxuriant description than the short story.

Authors are inclined not to experiment with a modern novella's literary form, as they sometimes do with long stories or novels. Compared with modern novels, modern novellas usually lack subplots, multiple points of view, and generic adaptability. Instead, they are most often concerned with personal and emotional development rather than with the larger social or cultural spheres that often surround a novel's characters and situations.

For its part, beginning from its inception in the seventeenth century, the written version of the modern short story was influenced by the many oral storytelling traditions that preceded it. Its far distant sources also include written sources such as the Italian Renaissance novella, and a host of other stories written before and after the era of the Italian Renaissance novella.

The modern short story has evolved to include a body of work so diverse as to challenge succinct characterization. Normally it's written in fictional prose narrative form, but not always. It usually features a small cast of characters and focuses on the consequences of a single, central incident with a single effect, which it thoroughly describes. Their primary intent is to evoke a single effect or mood and to make a single point. They freely employ the same kinds of literary tricks and techniques found in the novel repertory, such as plot, resonance, and other dynamic literary elements, but to a far lesser concentration and intensity. But despite their many ties, both the short story and the modern novel are distinctly different literary forms.

As for the short story and the novella, partly because of their common origins both the modern short story and the Renaissance novella evolved into a variety of related and more sophisticated literary subforms and sub genres. They both share common literary predecessors and descendents, and the modern short story includes fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth century Italian Renaissance novellas and their follow-ups as influences.

The short story and the renaissance novella are similar in some respects, not only because they both evolved from the same sources, but also because they serve corresponding purposes. The goal they share in common is to extend the length, literary complexity, characterization, and variety of subjects, plots, and themes. But as far as their literary qualities are concerned, the renaissance novella is far more primitive and less focused than the modern short story, partly because its authors and readers lacked the literary sophistication exemplified by the modern novel, an artistic characteristic that only became available for modern authors to exploit centuries later.

Over the millennia, original seventeenth century short stories and novellas have steadily grown in length, complexity, and literary sophistication until they have evolved into a modern counterparts that far exceed them.

modern Novels compared with other literary forms

Modern novels tell stories in their own unique ways, ways that differ from all other storytelling vehicles. One of the most foundational ways in which they differ is by virtue of their respective literary formats and genres. (By format we mean literary form.)

Among the many literary forms available to writers are prose narratives, epic poems and epic narratives, religious and secular plays, essays, eddas, sagas, and more. Some of these forms for telling stories are poetic, others prosaic; some fictional, others nonfictional.


perils of Literary Form and genre classifications

As with many other literary terms, the conventional definitions for literary forms and genres are sometimes vague or muddled.

For instance, many literati subscribe to the notion that only these literary forms exist: narrative, poetry, and drama. They consider novels, short stories, essays, etc. to be narrative subforms; they consider sonnets, odes, free verse, etc. to be poetry subforms.

Still other "experts" define a literary form as a combination of genre, form, and style. Others cite allegory, biography, burlesque, epic, or myth as literary forms, not genres.  And Wikipedia, for one, takes the reverse option; the last time we looked, it defined the novel literary form as a genre.

Are you unsure of the technical terms and definitions for genres or forms such as edda, saga, edda, epic, fantasy, novel, or novella? Wondering just what they really mean? Well then, join the crowd.

It would take an Aristotle to clear up this morass of definitions and  nomenclatures to everyone's satisfaction, but we're only Muses; so we're not going to be able to attempt this feat here. But don't worry; these terms will be become clearer as you read, even without going deeper into the matter.

On the other hand, if you're impatient for further clarification right now and want to digress and explore these topics in depth, look no further:

Of course, not all literary forms, genres, and works tell stories. Of those that do, the kinds of stories they tell are not all structured alike from a literary standpoint. Many of these other kinds of stories employ non-novelistic literary styles or genres; some employ properties that set them apart in other ways. For example, poems and plays can tell stories, but that doesn't make them novels.

Further, some of the stories not told in prose are told in free form verse, epic poems, or in musical lyrics; these forms and genres are among other ways to tell stories. So too are most histories and travelogues, which tell nonfictional stories. Other kinds of stories are constructed with genres popular in foreign cultures, places, or times that are alien to those incorporated in modern novels. And some ancient stories employ additional and distinct non-novelistic literary typologies of their own.

Moreover, essays are not stories, nor are newspaper articles, even though some essays and newspapers may contain stories.

Marie-Henri Beyle, pen name Stendhal

As noted earlier, none of these non-novelistic literary formats and genres for telling stories is inherently superior or inferior to those employed by novelists; each serves its own literary purposes. Thus, the novel literary format turns out to be just one of many equally valid alternate ways for authors to cast a story.

By the same token, stories told by novelists are not inherently superior to other kinds of stories just because they employ the novel literary form. In no way are storytellers restricted if they choose not to write novels, so long as their choice of literary form is consistent with their story-telling objectives.

In fact, some of these non-novelistic literary forms even allow a significant degree of complexity, one that's on a par with that of the most sophisticated novels. Sixteenth and seventeenth century poetic epics are an important case in point. Thus, novels are not innately superior even in respect to length or complexity.

However, it's probably fair to say that the body of novels as a whole offers a degree of complexity and sophistication and a variety of optional writing styles and genres that enrich it when compared with other ways to write stories. Perhaps to a greater extent than for other kinds of story telling, successful new writing styles and genres more often appear in the world's body of novels, and with uncompromising literary merit. If anything, novel writing seems to invite literary invention. New styles and genres tend to expand and broaden their scope.

For example, consider Bram Stoker's late-Victorian 1897 vampire novel, Count Dracula. Count Dracula integrates the vampire legend with the Gothic horror genre originated by Horace Walpole in his 1764 Gothic proto-novel, The Castle of Otranto. Count Dracula is a novel so original and vibrant, by itself it created the modern day way to tell a vampire story, namely the modern vampire literary genre.

Stoker's novel, Count Dracula, not only integrated the vampire legend with the Gothic horror genre, it successfully introduced the legend of vampirism to the public by transforming an 1819 short prose fiction story titled The Vampyre by John Polidori into a consistent, plausible, complex and sophisticated, full length story.

The Vampyre is the first story to successfully fuse the previously disparate and fragmented elements of the vampire legend into what is today a single tradition. Polidori's imaginative short story is the first modern vampire fantasy story ever to be written; it virtually created the vampire legend all by itself. Polidori's story converted the vampire from a character in folklore into the form in which it is recognized today—an aristocratic fiend who preys upon high-society.

But by itself, The Vampyre was too brief and simplistic to attract much attention, but it was coherent. Stoker succeeded by expanding Polidori's short story into a different, far more complex, sophisticated, full-length story of his own. In Stoker's hands, Polidori's short story became a novel.

And a novel was the difference that made the day! Count Dracula is the first vampire novel; it's a single work that by itself established the vampire legend as a world-wide cultural phenomenon. Stoker's transformation of Polidori's story was an immediate popular success largely because the novel form gave him the tools he needed to satisfy the gothic horror predilections of the public. It fused three literary elementsthe vampire legend, the Gothic horror genre, and the novel forminto a triad for which the novel literary format was an ideal way for him to tell his story.

An interesting sidelight:

In real life, Polidori was Lord Byron's physician and a friend to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of Frankenstein, a Modern Prometheus. Both Frankenstein and The Vampyre were born on the same monumental 1816 torrential rainy night, at an intimate laudanum-aroused Lake Geneva soiree in Lord Byron's rented Swiss villa.

The illustrious group was made up of Polidori, Byron, Mary Wollstonecraft and her husband to be, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley's stepsister and the unwed mother of Byron's child.

This group of friends had been taking temporary shelter from a three-day series of incessant summer rains that occurred during the so-called "year without a summer," an abnormal volcanic winter caused by a massive 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (the largest eruption in over 1,300 years). Their mood and atmosphere were aggravated by the Little Ice Age, which had been underway since the fourteenth century, and which had been causing considerable unabated agricultural distress and starvation in Europe since the sixteenth century.

Given the literary inclinations of the participants and the severity of the ominous weather and cultural conditions outside, the group's attention had turned to reading fantastical stories to pass the timeor so the story goes; and it's no wonder that their mood and conversation turned to the topic of fantastic horror literature. That night each member challenged the others to write a fantastical horror story of his own, and all five took up and met the challenge in the days that followed. Both Frankenstein and the Vampyre are the direct result of this competition initiated among them that scary night.

Such can be the fortuitous outcomes of literary genius. These great works of this group might not have been constructed under more clement conditions; and the vampire legend might not have been born.

How do modern novels compare with the long fictional prose narratives that preceded them?

As previously noted, modern versions of these alternate literary forms evolved from short stories, novellas, and novels as they were written in the Italian Renaissance, but the evolution has been a long one, and each new one is a literary form in its own right.

A few of the kinds of literary works that preceded the birth of the modern novel do resemble modern novels in certain respects, but that still doesn't make them true novels. For example, the medieval Icelandic saga is a prose narrative of epic proportions recounting the achievements and events of a grand Norse personage or family. The saga literary form so resembles a modern novel that a related genre called the saga novel is a form of modern novel being written today, further illustrating the novel's flexibility.

As already noted, short stories and novellas are still being written today, and they resemble modern novels even more closely than do any of their other ancient predecessors. But even they fail to closely match modern or early novel forms. The modern short story is a much simpler and shorter way to use prose narration to tell a fictitious story. The contemporary novella, another modern way to tell a fictitious story tat uses prose narration, is less simple and shorter than a novel, but longer and more complex than a short story. It's not even identical to its namesake, the renaissance novella, or to the renaissance novel.

how stories evolve into literary forms. The evolution of the novel literary form

How are new ways to tell stories created? How can plain old stories told by simple untrained storytellers evolve into strict new academic standards for literary forms and genres? How do various new literary forms such as novels, short stories, epics or sagas come into being?

There is no shortage of different ways for new story forms to come into existence; and it's certainly not our intention to enumerate all of them here. Rather we offer a few examples to illustrate that literary evolutions such as those that produced the modern novel are nothing remarkable or unusual.

Rarely does a new literary form arise in what is virtually a single stroke by dint of an author's genius, but it does happen: Cervantes' Don Quixote, James Joyce's Ulysses, and William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying are three examples. The first occurred four hundred years ago; the last two in the modern era.

But far more often, a new story form arises by chance, in a gradual trial-and-error process, with one newly-invented literary or linguistic flourish or embellishment leading to others. And eventually authors, academicians, or publishers wake up one day and realize that the aggregate of these new works and their original features comprises a new literary form. For example, the modern novel story form evolved from a wide variety of literary developments that took place in England during and just prior to the eighteenth century.

From an historical viewpoint, new kinds of storiesnew literary styles and genresusually devolve from works produced by hard working dedicated clever authors working alone or in small isolated groups of closely cooperating authors who share a common purpose and who focus on their own preferred ways to write manuscripts. Writing schools like these randomly invent and perfect a new or different writing style they collectively admire.

But whatever their source, once recognized by other authors these new ways to write a story are then adopted or adapted by a larger circle of additional writers who incorporate them in their work and who emulate them.

Here are a few examples of writing schools that have grown up in modern times:

  • Aestheticism
    Often associated with Romanticism, this kind of storytelling emphasizes aesthetic value as the primary goal for literature. This writing school included authors such as Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater who stressed art for art's sake.
  • Gender
    Stories emphasizing themes on gender relations.
  • Marxism
    Marxist stories emphasizing themes of class conflict.
  • Modernism
    Stories embodying the post WW1 view that late nineteenth and early twentieth century activities and arts were becoming ill-fitted to their tasks and outdated in the new economic, social, and political environment of an emerging fully industrialized world. The stream of consciousness writing technique is one of its literary innovations.
  • Postmodernism
    Late twentieth century stories about conditions in the twentieth century, often with a skeptical concern for those viewed as social deviants or the Other.
  • Psychoanalysis
    Stories that explore the consciousness and unconsciousness of the author, reader, or characters in a story.
  • Structuralism, formalism, and semiotics
    Stories that express meaning by exploiting explicit and underlying literary and linguistic forms, structures, signs, and symbols.
Emily Jane Brontë, author of Wuthering Heights

New ways to write stories have been devised without letup for thousands of years by writing groups homologous to these, but of course the kinds of stories they produced were representative of their own times, not of modern times.

What were some of the forces for change that caused new kinds of stories to be devised? What were their consequences?

Sometimes new customs, genres, styles, or forms were imported from an outside culture and absorbed directly by another culture, without significant modification, except perhaps for translation.

In some cases, new ways to write a story were absorbed whole by one culture from another. Some were revised to fit the absorbing culture's preexisting literary characteristics or distinguishing styles and customs. At other times new ways to write were revised and merged into a completely original literary form after absorption.

The Roman assimilation of Greek culture affords us with a striking example of these kinds of evolutionary forces, as does the Western European Renaissance incorporation of Classical culture. Rome accepted and absorbed pagan Greek culture by adapting and integrating its pantheon, philosophy, religion, and literature; the Renaissance did the same for pagan Roman culture, but it added a Christian twist. The Crusades did the same to Mohammedan stories.

Occasionally a literary form or genre native to an outside culture would be imported into a receiving culture, and the imported literature was convolved or melded laboriously with a previously established literary form or genre native to the receiving culture. At other times an outside  literary form was imported without essential alteration.

Sometimes new ways to write stories were devised by an entirely new and liberated generation of native authors within a given culture. In rare cases, a brand new literary form or genre within a given culture was the inspiration of a singular, unique native of that culture.

Sometimes a new way to write a story was favorably received immediately and wholeheartedly by literary authorities or the public. Such an outcome especially likely to occur among a new generation of authors open to change working in a culture that stifled them. But at other times new kinds of stories came as a shock. And because of that shock, older accepted ways to write certain kinds of stories had to be adapted until they resembled familiar ways to tell stories.

In many cases new ways for telling stories were a fresh surprise to the reading public of the culture that received them. And after considerable resistance from existing native readers, the shock of a new way to write might wear off and resistance to the new stories fade. This happened in eighteenth century England when longer love stories of the seventeenth century England and France evolved into new kinds of long, complicated romantic stories popular in England during the early eighteenth century.

Often in such cases, what may have started out as a shockingly new way to tell stories was subsequently accepted as a de facto literary standard by the receiving culture. When this happened, what authors and readers once thought of as a strange new form or genre sometimes became well enough known to acquire a conventional name in the receiving society. Authors, scholars, critics, publishers, booksellers, students, and eventually the public at large often came to think of such a new standard as one of their own invention. This is what happened when the novella was introduced into seventeenth century Spain, when Cervantes' Don Quixote was introduced from Spain into Western Europe at large, and when long romantic stories were introduced into eighteenth century England.

But sometimes there was confusion while this naming process played itself out. The name for the new type of story might be applied to an old kind of story already being penned in the receiving culture. This would promote ambiguity concerning the name by which to call the old kind of story, especially in cases where the new and old kinds of story both bore the same name but used contrary literary techniques. The two different types of works might be referred to concurrently by the same name, even though in actuality they were different literary forms and genres when seen from a precise literary perspective. This sort of misnaming actually happened when long romantic stories were introduced into England in the early seventeenth century; they were called novels by authors and readers.

The kinds of long and complicated fictional stories the Muses refer to as proto-novels also underwent this form of naming confusion. Robinson Crusoe and Joseph Andrews are just two of many such examples. They were fresh new ways to write complicated long stories when they appeared on the English scene in the first half of the eighteenth century but they were not novels in the strict modern sense of the term. Although they were not novels themselves, they possessed a range of forms and genres of their own that were grouped under a common naming umbrella called the novel.

Proto-novels underwent evolutionary changes in England throughout the last half of the eighteenth century that tended to make them more novel-like as time went on. One of the greatest proto-novels in the world is an example of this kind of evolution, one counted among the earliest long fictional stories of eighteenth century England. The great 1749 English adventure story, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding, was and still is called a novel by many; but in reality it's a proto-novel, not a novel in the modern sense of the term.

What kind of a story is Tom Jones really? Today, careful literary scholars classify Tom Jones as a combination Bildungsroman and a picaresque story. That means that it is a type of long and complex fictional story concerned with the education, development, and maturing of a young engagingly roguish hero protagonist whose adventures are described in a series of usually humorous or satiric episodes that often depict, in realistic detail, the everyday life of the common people.

Proto-novels like Tom Jones are often mistakenly referred to as novels even though they were not actually novels in the pure, modern sense of the term when they were written. Yes, works like Tom Jones helped point the way to the true novel; but each new brand of proto-novel like Tom Jones subscribed to its own unique literary form and genre.

Keep in mind that proto-novels were literary innovations; they were experiments by courageous authors willing to strike out and create new kinds of literature that would achieve their purposes. Their works were on the evolutionary path that led to the novel, but they were not novels themselves because the novel had not yet been invented.

Proto-novels appeared in England about the middle part of the eighteenth century; true novels appeared later. Works like Robinson Crusoe, Joseph Andrews, and Tom Jones were the first long fictional stories to appear anywhere which were written with literary forms and genres close enough to true novel forms and genres to be referred to by the term novel, but they were not novels. Because they were long complicated fictional stories, they helped stimulate the creation of the first true novels.

In addition to proto-novels, a large variety of long and complicated fictional story forms and genres appeared in the first half of eighteenth century England, not just the works cited here. Compared with their proto-novel contemporaries, many of these other kinds of long fictional narratives were a different breed entirely. Most of them were simple and lighthearted; they could be read quickly for their entertainment or informative value and afterward tossed or given away or shared with a friend. There was little in most of these narratives that was deep or intricate. As we might say today, most of these other kinds of fictional narratives were an easy read; they could be downed fast and then tossed away.

But the proto-novels that came later were a different kind of fiction that required closer reading. They were consciously designed by their authors to tell longer, more complex, more engrossing, and interesting stories. They treated deeper, more challenging subjects that demanded more attention and thoughtful comprehension.

With proto-novels, serious eighteenth century English readers fell into the habit of thinking about what they were reading, both while they read and later, after they closed the covers. The characters they read about had depth; they resembled people they had personally known or people they were living with. Even though they realized that they were reading fiction, they tended to put that fact aside. They followed characters and events in stories—even secondary characters—as if they were real people and actual happenings. They read more slowly, taking time to absorb and analyze what they were reading about. And they shared their novels with others and kept their novels handy for possible rereading later.

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky

Proto-novels were not alone; other literary forms bearing resemblances to the modern novel literary form also played a role leading to the novel. For example, modern versions of both short stories and novellas were being written and read in eighteenth century England. They evolved from short stories and novellas as they were written in the Italian Renaissance.

These kinds of stories eventually evolved to become modern short stories and modern novellas. Today, modern short stories and modern novellas serve a literary purpose that resembles the one served by the Italian Renaissance novella: to facilitate the writing of longer and more complex fictional narratives. Thus the modern novella stands between the modern short story and the modern novel. It's longer and more complex than the modern short story but far shorter and less complex than the modern novel.

Modern-day short stories and novellas resemble modern novels far more closely than do their ancient counterparts, but even they fail to conform to the criteria that define the true modern novel. Compared with the modern novel, the modern short story and novella are simpler and less complex; the modern novella is less simple and longer than the short story, but shorter and less complex than the novel.

By no means were proto-novels and novellas alone in eighteenth century England. Kinds of stories other than proto-novels and novella were published in eighteenth century England that were distinctly and radically different from  true novels in fundamental ways. They were so different from proto-novels and from each other, they should not be confused with true novels of any genre.

These different sorts of long fictional stories differed from proto-novels or novellas and from each other in a variety of ways. For example, some were actually nonfictional rather than fictional; some were written in verse. Others possessed very different literary formats, with genres drawn from archaic sources.

Eighteenth century English stories like these often had literary genre typographies of their own. They bore genre names other than novel, names devised centuries earlier, such as epics, religious plays, eddas, or fantasies. None of these forms of literature were novel-like in any sense of the word. None of them directly influenced the invention of the novel.

Nor was eighteenth century England the only time or place where authors wrote stories that resemble novels in one respect or another. For example, the medieval Icelandic saga is a prose narrative of epic proportions recounting the achievements and events of a grand Norse personage or family.

Sagas vary. Most are about ancient Nordic and Germanic history or about early Viking voyages. They recount stories about battles that took place during the voyages, about migration to Iceland, and about feuds between Icelandic families.

So-called Kings' sagas are about the lives of Scandinavian kings and were composed from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. Icelanders' sagas, also called Family Sagas, are stories of real events written in the Old Norse language mainly in Iceland, passed in oral form until they eventually were recorded, mostly in the thirteenth century. They are stories of real events, passed down through time by bards in oral form until eventually they were recorded by "authors," mostly in the 13th century.

These texts are a mixture of prose and poetry. The tales they tell are composed in prose which share some of their literary characteristics with the epic literary form, often with stanzas or whole poems in alliterative verse embedded in their text. They tell of heroic deeds of days long gone, tales of worthy men who were often Vikings. Since these exploits were performed in a period during which Christianity was spreading throughout Western Europe, some of them are pagan, some Christian. The characters and actions they portray are usually realistic, except for legendary sagas, sagas of saints, sagas of bishops, and translated or recomposed romances. They are sometimes romanticized and fantastic, but they always deal with human beings one can understand.

Sagas were conscious artistic creations by creative authors based on and inspired by both oral and written traditions. Although they were descriptions of events that actually happened, they were a mixture of fictional and nonfiction.

Collectively some sagas resemble the kinds of long complicated fictional prose stories that are told by novels. In fact, Icelandic sagas so closely resemble modern novels, a related modern novel genre called the saga novel has been devised that's based upon them. The modern saga novel is a genuine form of modern novel being written today.

The word Saga originates from Old Norse or Icelandic language; it's the modern Icelandic and Swedish word for the English word story, and it's descended from the same language form as the English word say. Its various Icelandic meanings include the phrases something said, a narrative in prose, a story, a tale, and a history. But despite the Icelandic saga's similarities to the modern novel, its literary forms did not ride the evolutionary arc that led to the modern novel literary form.

But despite these parallels with modern novels, works like these were not on the evolutionary arc that led to the modern novel.

ancient & classical storytelling Prior to the seventeenth century

As already noted, narrative stories originally began to be told by word of mouth thousands of years ago; they took the form of spoken or sung narrative accounts orated in prose or sung in poetry. Typically these oral stories remained unwritten until much later, when writing became available in Mesopotamia and Egypt around the third millennium BCE. At first they were inscribed in clay or carved into stone or written on papyrus; only much later were they penned on paper, usually after they had become folklore, legends, myths, religious beliefs, or cultural or social traditions.

The types of fictional prose narrative stories that used to appear in ancient writings like these typically show up today in modern epics, fables, fantasies, science fiction stories, and in a variety of other literary forms and genres, even in novels. Some modern versions of these kinds of works are similar to their ancient counterparts; others are not.

The types of nonfiction prose narrative accounts that used to appear in ancient writings like these typically show up today in works such as nonfictional histories, biographies, autobiographies, travelogues, essays, and a variety of other literary forms and genres. As with fiction, some modern versions of these kinds of works are similar to their ancient counterparts; others are not.

But canonical (true) novels didn't begin to appear on the horizon in earnest until much later, early in the eighteenth century. Given these similarities, why didn't novels appear sooner?

ancient Stories and classical storiesTrue or false?

Today fiction and nonfiction are looked upon as two distinctly different branches of literature. Fiction and nonfiction are considered opposites. The modern novel falls into the category of fiction.

Hellenistic statue of the Greek bard Homer on display in the British Museum. Ancient Greeks believed him to be the first and greatest epic poet.

Of course, many ancient authors deliberately and consciously wrote original stories they created out of their own imaginations; but many others did not. It turns out that fiction and nonfiction stories often are hard or impossible for modern readers to tell apart. In many cases, works that modern eyes see as fiction, ancient writers and readers took as literal fact. Ancient authors believed and accepted their own society's myths, religious accounts, epics, and other traditions as truths, and treated them accordingly; but for the most part, modern readers dismiss them as nonfiction.

This perceptual literary differences between kinds of stories causes modern readers to view many ancient prose nonfiction narratives as nonfiction. Since they are seen as nonfiction by modern readers, they seem closer to modern fictional prose narratives than they really are, closer than their authors intended them to be. This altered perception partly accounts for the tendency of modern scholars and critics to sometimes refer to ancient nonfiction prose narratives as if they are novels when actually they are not.

Yes, it's true: most ancient and classical literature actually is written as if it were nonfiction, whether or not it was based on real people, gods, or events. What kinds of stories did these ancient authors receive from other sources, accepting them as true when they actually were false? Many of these ancient authors based what they believed to be true accounts on legends, religious beliefs, scientific superstitions, and myths that are not subscribed to or substantiated today. That is, they wrote nonfictional stories without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation.

These kinds of dubious "true" stories are concerned with heroes, deities, or demigods; they're stories that explain some social or cultural practice, rite, or natural phenomenon. Many ancient authors heard or read these kinds of stories and accepted them as factual; they captured them on paper, just as if they were true, using nonfictional literary techniques to write them down. In some cases these stories were already written down, but authors rewrote them. They translated, retold, or embellished them to make them more interesting, informative, rewarding, or enjoyable.

These kinds of ancient, untrue storiesstories that once passed for truth come in a variety of flavors. Some of them actually contain a few slivers of pure truth; others are wholly fictional or at most are grounded in fact; and still others are total inventions handed down to from generation to generation in the form of folklore, legend, myth, epic, religious tales, customs, fantasies, etc., or other forms that most of us today consider fictional, if not complete and utter balderdash.

For example, Homer's Odyssey, his epic poem about Odysseus's ten-year adventure attempting to return to Ithaca after the great Trojan War, is so phantasmagorial, it's easy for modern readers to dismiss it out of hand. Today, the Homeric tale is regarded by most as a brilliant and fascinating piece of illusory fiction, an entertaining outpouring of a imaginative genius. But despite its fantastical elementspreposterous and astounding events and absurd and egregious heroismssome Ancient Greeks and Romans were willing to swallow the story hook, line, and sinker, as if it were a literal accounting of real people from a larger age. And many more listeners and readers in preceding centuries did the same.

The great Classical Roman lyric poet Publius Ovidius Naso, known in English as Ovid.

Today you and I know that Homer's legendary story about the sacking of Troy actually is fiction, but we accept and honor it as a work of art, for its beauty, drama, and exhilarating literary excellence. But by contrast, many Ancient Greeks and Romans believed that Troy really existed and that it actually was destroyed by Grecian warriors, just as Homer describes what happened in the Iliad.

Are you one of those who, unlike the Greeks and Romans of Old, is convinced that the Iliad is sheer fiction? Or do you believe that the Iliad is an accurate account of a real event clouded by the mists of time?

Well, if you harbor any doubts, hold on. Greek and Roman convictions regarding the existence of Troy and the Trojan War, although probably misguided, may not have been as naive as most of us think. Ironically, it turns out that some of these ancient believers may have been right after all, at least with respect to some of their assumptions.

If you're one of those who believes in the authenticity of Troy and the story of the Iliad, you have something in common with German businessman and amateur archeologist Heinrich Schliemann. Schliemann is among those who did (and still) advocate the historical reality of places mentioned in the works of Homer.

Schliemann was no slouch, however; he put his money where his mouth is. In 1868 and afterward he went so far as to actually excavate the ancient city of Hissarlik in modern day Turkey. He also excavated the Mycenaean sites Mycenae and Tiryns, and he found conjectural archeological artifacts that may have substantiated his claim. This work lent weight to the argument that Homer's Iliad and Virgil's Aeneid reflect actual historical events. As a result, Hissarlik is now presumed by some archeologists to be the true site of ancient Troy.

Notwithstanding Schliemann's undeniable accomplishments in regard to Troy (whose correctness has been severely questioned by some acclaimed experts), the vast majority of ancient narratives like the Iliad and the Odyssey have turned out to be unintentional frauds that in many cases were sincerely believed true by their authors and readers. Of course, there were intentional frauds, as well. Either way, today most readers would call works like these fiction.

Even if Schliemann was right about the existence of Troy, he probably was wrong when he exploited his Trojan diggings to substantiate his claims that Homer's Iliad and Virgil's Aeneid are accountings of actual events.

In all likelihood an author named Homer never even existed. Some experts speculate that tales attributed to him were amalgamated from oral stories made up by a number of anonymous autonomous bards, and passed down from one generation to the next. Some evidence suggests that eventually these multiple oral accounts were transcribed (set down on a medium such as paper) by unknown authors as long ago as twelve hundred years BCE. Some experts conjecture by analyzing poetic styles that one man wrote both the Iliad and the Odyssey. And even if an author of the myths actually once existed, they doubt he was named Homer. So how could Homer have told the truth about Odysseus and the sacking of Troy?

Homer's Iliad and Odyssey illustrate some of the reasons why confirming a story's authenticity often poses a challenge; the task can be utterly hopeless. This kind of ambiguity most often arises for stories coming to us from out of the ancient past, but it can apply even to stories written today.

From a literary point of view, the Iliad and Odyssey show how one reader's nonfiction can be another reader's fiction, and that "truth" is not always stranger than fiction. They demonstrate that the literary tools and writing styles for nonfiction are essentially the same as the those for fiction, and that the linguistic and literary properties of nonfictional and fictional pieces of literature are virtually the identical. They further illustrate that the essential differences between fictional and nonfictional pieces of literature lay not in the way tales are told, but rather in the credibility of their stories.

These close similarities between narrative fiction and narrative fact help explain the novel's power and impact. Although novels are actually fiction, the stories they tell might as well be real. They often seem real even though they're not.

the modern novelHow close did ancient and classic worlds come?

Ancient and Classical writers of Rome, Greece, and earlier millennia never devised a class of literature that today we might recognize as a novel; don't waste your time looking for it, it doesn't exist. It they had, today we might be emulating them by writing literature we call ancient or classical novels.

But ancient and classical authors did write a few kinds of literature that distantly resemble novels in certain respects. In particular, they wrote forms of literature that today we call prose, and other forms we call narratives. They even wrote literature we refer to as nonfictional prose narratives, and other kinds we call fictional prose narratives. But virtually no author of the distant past ever assembled all the requisite attributes of the novel into a single literary work that fits its modern definition.

The great Classical Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus, known in English as Horace.

Although it's arguable that a few ancient and classical authors came close, historians cannot identify a single piece of ancient or classical writing that fits the description of a clearly identifiable and incontrovertibly fictitious prose narrative of considerable length and complexity, portraying characters and usually presenting a sequential organization of action and scenes. Said simply, no contemporaneous reader can pick up an ancient story and recognize it as a novel.

When you look at the matter historically, this situation does seem rather strange. Why didn't at least one someone write a novel in distant times past? Is that so unreasonable an expectation?

After all, lots of people wrote stories in the good old days, many of them great; and they had ages of time in which to do it. Further, ancient authors demonstrated that they has the skill for doing so; they invented many other different forms of great literature. Why should it have taken authors so long t come up with the concept of the novel?

One might legitimately ask these kinds of questions, or at least investigate them; one might speculate, but with little success. For example, Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey...but no, on second thought, the Iliad and the Odyssey aren't actually novels after all, are they? They're remarkable epic dramatic narrative poems, a kind of literature that places them about a far from a novel as you can get.

Yes, the Iliad and the Odyssey are complex narratives that superficially resemble novels in some respects, but at core they're epic poems that tell the story of the sack of Troy and its aftermath; they're narrative poems describing the culmination of ten years of combat and one of its results, not complex prose narratives.

Homer depicts motivations and emotions by describing his characters' deeds and statements, but their inner minds and hearts don't evolve because of them. Instead, their heroic personalities are wooden and two-dimensionalflat, like cardboard.

Further, his heroes change their minds, but they don't develop psychologically or emotionally as the story unfolds; rather they start out being defined by one or a few major physical or personality attributes and remain the same throughout.

For the most part, Homer tells you what they thing or say, but he doesn't explore his characters' psyches and how they change in reaction to their interactions with others, with events, or with the other experiences they undergo. Nor do his characters examine themselves; they're shallow; they don't reason with themselves or others. He, the author, and they ignore their deepest feelings and most penetrating thoughts.

Ancient works like the Iliad and the Odyssey raise other interesting and important questions. Given that some scholars believe that works like these are long and complex fictional narratives with many characters, plots and subplots, should we regard them as novels? On the other hand, given that other scholars believe that many works like these actually are nonfictional narratives, should we discount them as novels?

The answer is yes. Many, many fictional and nonfictional narratives were written in the millennia prior to the seventeenth century, but none were actual novels in the currently accepted sense of the word. No Western authors put together a single fictional prose narrative resembling a full novel as they are conceived in recent times. Works like the Iliad and the Odyssey help explain this conclusion. The Iliad, for example, sometimes referred to as the Song of Ilion or Song of Ilium, is an ancient Greek epic poem in dactylic hexameter, and novels are not poems.

The great Classical Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro, known to the English-speaking world as Virgil

This observation applies even to ancient fictional prose narratives traced back hundreds or even thousands of years, both in Western and Eastern literary traditions.

In the Eastern world, for example, today's modern Chinese refer to four extremely ancient and lengthy fictional prose narrative Chinese works dating from the Ming and Qing dynasties as The Four Great Classical Novels. These are fictional prose narratives are titled The Water Margin (fourteenth century); Romance of the Three Kingdoms (fourteenth century); Journey to the West (sixteenth century); and Dream of the Red Chamber (eighteenth century). The Chinese and some Western pundits regard them as novels, as their group name suggests, but their relationship to today's novels is distant, at best. You can read them and decide for yourself how closely they resemble a true modern novel.

In the Western world, a variety of fictional prose narrative works distantly resembling novels were prominent forms of literature in ancient Greece and Rome. The Greek author Longus' Daphnis and Chloe is but one example. Other noteworthy examples include the Roman Satyricon by Gaius Petronius and The Golden Ass by Apuleius. Some scholars loosely refer to Greek and Roman fictional prose narrative works like these as novels, even though strictly speaking they are not. Fictional prose narratives like these stopped being written after the fall of Rome and didn't reappear in earnest until the invention of a new kind of fictional prose narrative literary form during the Italian Renaissance called the novella, which is not itself a novel either.

Sagas present us with other examples of fictional prose narratives from a different part of the world that resemble novels but fall short. Icelander Sagas, also called Family Sagas, are another example of Western World prose narrative works that remotely resemble novels. Sagas are a collection of written prose narratives that recount heroic family histories mostly describing actual events that took place in Iceland from 930 CE to 1030 CE. They're early prose nonfiction accounts of actual eleventh and twelfth century century events that passed between great Norse kings, royal pretenders, settler families, heroes, and their heroic descendants, all of whom lived in Iceland in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and afterward.

Sagas began as stories told by bards, and nobody knows for sure who sung them or who collected and captured them on paper. Some contend it was the thirteenth century Icelandic poet, historian, and politician Snorri Sturluson. They are a unique contribution to Western literature and are far in advance of any other medieval literature in their realism, controlled and objective style, powers of character delineation, and overwhelming tragic dignity. These qualities make them similar in some ways to  true novels, but they still fall short.

Snorri is credited with proposing the hypothesis that mythological gods begin as human war leaders and kings whose funeral sites develop cults. As people go to battle or face tribal hardship, they call upon a dead war leader or dead king, and begin to venerate the figure. Eventually, the king or warrior is remembered only as a god. Snorri also proposed that as tribes defeat others, they explain their victory by proposing that their own gods were in battle with the gods of the others.

Insofar as they apply, Snorri's theories about gods and heroes reasonably account for the many similarities between fictional and nonfictional stories about myths, epics, legends, religious accounts, eddas, biographies, and histories.

Sagas are genuine historic stories about real families and their true adventures, triumphs, braveries, cowardly acts, and tragedies. The fact that they are nonfictional stories distances them from novels and possibly places them closer to nonfiction histories, biographies, or autobiographies than to novels.

The novella, mentioned above, is another kind of story, one that comes as close to being a true novel as any of the early literary forms come.

J. M. W. Turner's magnificent painting, Ovid Banished from Rome, a recounting of an historical happening, painted 1883. Can you find Ovid in the picture?



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