The Evolution of Storytelling

For 30,000+ years, Homosapiens (and possibly other, long-extinct relatives) have been telling stories, sharing wisdom and tales of everyday life with one another. ‘Storytelling is a human universal’ and to a large extent, the action of sharing stories is how we have intellectually evolved to our modern variant.

Professor Yuval Noah Harari, leading author and intellectual on the history of mankind, argues that our ability to co-operate in such vast numbers falls down to our capacity to imagine and tell stories, allowing us to band together around religious, political and socio-economic systems.

Though the reasonings have remained largely the same through the millennia, the formats and methods in which we communicate these stories have evolved with us. Join me as we take a look at the evolution of storytelling.

Cave paintings

Before the ages of technology; before the printing press and thousands of years before the oldest written text, human beings were telling stories of nature and rituals through the use of cave drawings. 

Some of the earliest recognised evidence of this type of storytelling lies in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of France, in the Chauvet Cave in Ardèche. Estimated to be around 30,000-32,000 years old, the drawings depict a number of species of animal – some now extinct – including cave lions & hyenas; leopards; bears; and even wooly rhinoceros’.

Though the true subject of the paintings is disputed, the apparent interactions between certain animals indicate the artists understanding of these creatures’ actions and habits – like two rhinos locked in a territorial battle, and a pride of lions stalking a group of bison. The cave may also depict the eruption of a volcano, which were active in the region at the time, which if true, would be the earliest depiction of such an event. 

Oral Storytelling

Dating back to the times of hunter/gatherer cultures and still being part of everyday conversation, the format of oral storytelling is thought to be as old as spoken language itself (which differs from culture to culture). Some of the earliest recorded stories such as ‘The Illiad’ by Ancient Greek poet Homer would have started as oral dictations long before they were written down, as we know them today.

A much more personal, albeit malleable style, oral storytelling has played an important role in the development and preservation of societies. In many cultures across the world, there were and still are roles within communities dedicated to the profession of oral storytelling.

Through the sharing of these stories in a communal, personal setting, not only were bonds between communities strengthened but fundaments for entire cultures were formed through tales, songs, and rituals; allowing for values, norms, and taboos to take root. 

(Sladen, Douglas Brooke Wheelton, 1856-1947. “A Story-teller reciting from the “Arabian Nights.” (1911)

Written Storytelling

If someone in the 21st century says to you ‘story’, I’d bet that 99% of people would instantly think of a book. The form of written storytelling is so common now that it’s almost hard to believe that less than 3,000 years ago it barely existed.

“Many of the themes found in these stories are still prevalent today. ” 

While Sumerian archaic ‘writing’ and Egyptian hieroglyphs are considered some of the earliest forms of a proto-syllabic script (from around 3000BC), the earliest example of written storytelling we can verify today is the Epic of Gilgamesh – an ancient series of narrative poems from Sumar (part of modern-day Iraq). Many of the themes found in these stories are still prevalent today.   

The invention of the printing press in the 15th Century then completely revolutionised society as a whole. By allowing for the mass production of stories, manuscripts and literary works, literacy levels sharply rose, helping to close the gaps in intellect between the rich and the poor. It also allowed for new and radical ideas to be communicated at mass, promoting the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and heralding the end of the Middle Ages. 


 ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ and while some of us wordsmiths may take some minor offense at the well-known quote, the power of a single photograph cannot be understated. A well-timed shot can convey all the same necessary elements of a written or spoken story of several hundred pages; that is ‘emotion, mood, narrative, ideas and messages.’

“These… photographs transcend what can be written or spoken about and beg for answers to almost inconceivable questions.” 

Though the process had been described as early as the 16th century, photography, as we know it, has only been around for the last 150 years. In this time we’ve seen it turn from a sort of science experiment to a near necessity found in billions of everyday pockets.

This isn’t to say that just anyone can take a storytelling photo. Think of the emotive power behind iconic photos such as ‘The Vulture and The Little Girl’ (1993) by Kevin Carter; the self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức (1963) captured by Malcolm Browne or ‘The Falling Man’ (2001) taken by Richard Drew. These types of photographs transcend what can be written or spoken about and beg for answers to almost inconceivable questions.

Technological age

Throughout the 20th Century, humanity witnessed technological feat after technological feat, changing nearly every aspect of our day-to-day lives, including the way we create, record and share stories with one another. Every day, people are using a variety of devices, apps and platforms, like Iternal, to tell and share their stories.

From radio to video; computers, smartphones and tablets; these advancements have made it so that no story has to go untold; a statement we’re passionate about at Iternal and have made it our mission to ensure just that. This is why we’re giving away a 2020 32gb 8th Generation iPad to one of our lucky users! The rules for the giveaway are simple: create an account and start getting those memories, stories, and cherished moments down on your timeline. It’s one entry for the sign-up and an additional entry for every memory you record, so you can still enter if you already have an account! For more information go to https://iternal.life/competition/ 

What stage of the evolution of storytelling interests you the most? Maybe you’d like us to delve more into the history of oral storytelling, or the role of radio as a platform in the 20th century? Let us know in the comments of any of our social media accounts. While you wait for our next blog post, why don’t you check out what’s already there? We’ve got loads of content already out and plenty more on the way!

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