Storytelling an evolutionary tool of our humanity

Author Ursula Kroeber Le Guin once wrote that “there have been a great many societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories”. Which is peculiar. There is such huge diversity in the human experience that this consistent social norm, shared across every country and every culture, has fascinated anthropologists for decades. Case study after case study, they have shown how stories have been used as tools to shape whole societies and their interactions with the world.

Now, with advances in neuroscience, we can see more conclusively that this universal love of the verbal art of storytelling is far more than a frivolous pastime. Sharing stories is an evolutionary tool that alters our minds.

I was raised on a staple diet of stories. Clean the child, feed the child, tell the child stories. Despite my urban upbringing, the ingredients in my stories were earthier. The tales that ignited my imagination were of desert elephants and living fossil plants, of realising that the persistent sound that woke you came from the scraping of a lion’s rough tongue against the canvas of your tent while she licked up the morning dew.

My aunt, an anthropologist, knew the power of stories and their power to build a base of compassion. She told me tales of strong, nomadic pastoralists who, over years, had become her family. And when I questioned her choices out of ignorance for a world I had never seen, she helped me to understand through her stories that there are many ways to be in the world and that it’s our experiences that inform how they’re valued.

For Brian Boyd, author of On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, a story is “a thing that does”, not merely a “thing that is”. When shared with children they help to build bonds between the teller and the listener. They provide richer, deeper pools of language and vocabulary for children to draw from. They’re the biological equivalent of squats and sit-ups for the synaptic pathways in the brain. And they can stir the motor cortex in ways that put the recipient in the shoes of the person the story is about. They simulate in the brain ideas about what life could be like if you were not you, so building kindness and empathy.


It is with some of these sentiments at heart that, this September, Nal’ibali is encouraging every South African to take part in Story Bosso, its third annual multilingual talent search contest. This year’s Story Bosso will focus on African folktales, and Nal’ibali is using this opportunity not only to reawaken a love of storytelling, but also to preserve our traditional stories with community storytelling sessions and auditions being held across the country. Books and sets of storytelling playing cards featuring common folktale characters will be distributed and cash and prizes will be available.

So, let’s get closer to one another this Heritage and Literacy Month and share our love for stories.

Jade Jacobsohn is managing director at Nal’ibali. For more information about the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign and the Story Bosso contest, as well as reading tips and stories in South African languages, find them on Facebook and Twitter: nalibaliSA

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Jade Jacobsohn
Jade Jacobsohn
Jade Jacobsohn Jacobsohn is the managing director at Nal’ibali. She is a seasoned anthropologist with research experience in South Africa, Uganda and Malawi, and has a solid grassroots background in the Eastern Cape as founder and Programme Manager of the Sophakama Community Partnership. She has managed various educational projects, specifically focused on early childhood development and environmental education within economically deprived areas, and has worked closely with Anglo American, Takalani Sesame and Food for Development. Her academic qualifications include a BSocSci (Hons) in Anthropology and Environmental Science from Rhodes University, and an MSc in Anthropology, Environment and Development from University College London.

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