Posted on 7/11/2007 by Sam Varteniuk
The earliest instance of storytelling must have happened, I figure, out of a need to communicate danger.
Picture a hunter-gatherer clan of early humans. Thag (who is named that because it seems an appropriate name for an early human, the "John" of pre-history, if you will), a young hunter, goes over a particular hill on a particular day in search of more food for the clan.
As he enters into a clearing Thag spots a fawn. He hefts his spear, but before he can launch it he spies strange movement in the grass near the young deer. Suddenly, with shocking speed and ferocity, a python springs from the grass and bites the fawn in the leg. The fawn starts, trying to run away but is quickly overcome by a strange lethargy. It falls to the ground in an almost drunken stagger, whereupon the snake advances, envelops, and eventually consumes the animal.
Thag is frightened by what he sees - never before has he seen such a predator, one that kills with a single bite. The fawn, Thag realises, was not much bigger than Thag's own son; Thag begins to worry about the toddler, who is curious, adventurous, and may one day wander over the hill . . .
Thag returns to the clan with a mission. He gathers all the children of the clan and frightens the wits out of them with his tale of the python and the fawn. Thag's son cries out as he re-enacts the grisly scene, describing in as much detail as he can how the snake moved through the grass, sprung with lightening speed, bit the fawn in a non-vital area yet still managed to kill it within seconds. Thag does not tell the story to win the praise or admiration of his peers; he has no desire to be recognised for the creativity or virtuosity of his storytelling. He is simply trying to communicate, in as clear and striking a fashion possible, the danger over the hill.
Today, Thag would not have to tell his son about the snake. Today, Thag could log on to the internet and show his son videos. If there are no videos to be seen, Thag can borrow the video camera from work and take it out to the field with him, capturing on film what he would have previously had to recreate in a story. After all, it's better to see a thing with one's own eyes than to simply have it described.
I offer this not as a condemnation of video - for the purposes of capturing and documenting events it is far more accurate than storytelling, which is prone to exaggeration, fragmented by memory, and ultimately at the mercy of subjective interpretations. I simply cite it as a fact. It is happening.
After all, why bother to tell the story when you can just show the video?