Firelight time for thinking about the future

Post by Stephen Carpenter

More than 400,000 years ago, our ancestors began to use fire regularly. Fire protected humans from predators and enabled them to modify landscapes to lower the costs of hunting and gathering and increase their access to food (e.g., burning to encourage new plant growth and thus attract plant-eating prey). The use of fire for cooking increased the digestibility of food, especially for the young, and thereby allowed larger family sizes. Research has also associated the advent of fire with many other unique characteristics of our species, including language, religion, cultural institutions, and inter-group cooperation and exchange, as well as anatomical changes, such as larger brains.

However less is known about how the longer day that fire awarded us affected cultures and societies. Fireside gatherings extended the day into a time when little work could be done. Did fireside conversations affect group interactions, conceptual thinking, or planning for the future?

A recent study of hundreds of conversations among Ju/’hoansi, a hunter-gatherer society that lives in the Kalahari Desert on the Namibia-Botswana border, shows the unique role played by fireside conversations. Anthropologist Polly Wiessner found that daytime conversation was dominated by practical matters of economics and governance, with a small fraction of the time spent joking or telling stories. In contrast, 81 percent of nighttime conversation consisted of stories.

Wiessner found that fireside stories stimulated the imagination, helped people understand and connect with others, healed rifts formed during the day, and promoted big-picture thinking about societal roots, future expectations, and cultural institutions—interactions that generate cooperation and trust. In other words, firelight conversations build social resilience, which allows the Ju/’hansi to cope with the fluctuations of life in their harsh desert environment. Similar observations have been made for other hunter-gatherer societies. Even humans that live a more “modern” lifestyle have a craving for firelight conversations and evening stories.

How can we develop new ways to have firelight conversations? Credit: Simon Barnes

Firelight conversations help us imagine and connect. Credit: Canoe Island French Camp

I think Wiessner’s study provokes some interesting questions. What happens when artificial light extends the productive part of the day, and wireless technology enables us to be plugged in all the time? Will we lose that deep conceptual understanding, cooperation, and trust evoked by firelight conversation? Or will we develop a technology-enabled virtual firelight conversation to replace the role of real hearths?

While no one knows the answers to these questions, many groups around the world are using technology to promote broad conversations about coping with global change. Blogs, like this one, and other social media facilitate discussions that could spark good ideas. But can these conversations build social resilience? It is worth a try.

Scenarios like Yahara 2070 are deliberate attempts to stimulate thinking about the kinds of futures we can attain. Just like the Ju/’hoansi people, we need imagination, the remembrance of tradition, an understanding of each other, and an ability to cope with a rapidly changing world. We can’t go back to our hunter-gatherer roots, but perhaps we can develop new ways to have the firelight conversations we need to cope with change. The future depends on it.


One thought on “Firelight time for thinking about the future

  1. fascinating study! One other thing about firelight stories — as a student, I briefly lived in a Zanzibar village where the nightly practice of sitting around the fire at night and telling stories was giving way to sitting in front of the lone television to watch soccer matches. The kids were growing up not knowing so many of the stories, which were a mix of aesop-type fables and stories about amazing things that had happened there. The stories enriched the landscape or delineated boundaries (like places where you should tread carefully because a spirit lives there and might unleash a python on you if you don’t). I imagine it’s not a coincidence that their understanding of that landscape and relationship to it seemed pretty different from that of their parents.

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