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How Stories and Music Saved the Human Race



Many anthropologists believe that the human race nearly became extinct about 70,000 years ago. The reasons may have had to do with a thousand year drought or a super volcano or something entirely else we don't know yet. What we think we know is that we were reduced to perhaps 2,000 individuals - maybe as few as forty.

Anatomically Modern Humans (AMH) were a comparatively unpromising species: physically weak, almost hairless (brr!), with mediocre hearing, sight, and sense of smell. Even our much vaunted brains were smaller than our fellow hominids, the Neandertals. There were also at least two other hominids at that time, as well (including the diminutive Homo floresiensis, who, if they had survived, would no doubt have been cast as Hobbits by Peter Jackson.)

So, why did we survive and thrive when others died out?


Spoken language is an obvious answer. But Neandertals had the same gene for language that we do and linguistically capable, if different, vocal abilities. Some scholars believe that we were the more aggressive race - we literally murdered the competition. Others believe a host of other theories: that Neandertals devoted too much brain space to managing their larger bodies; Neandertals were more vulnerable when yet another supervolcano erupted; they simply interbred with AMHs to the point where pure Neandertals disappeared.

I have my own theory: we survived because we are storytellers and musicians.


Let's start with storytelling. Individually, the smartest human ever could only come up with a few tiny improvements in their life's circumstances. But because we pool our information, each of us has at our disposal the experience of millions of others to draw from.

Think about even the most trivial tasks you do in your life. You sleep in a bed covered in sheets made from a plant that someone - actually thousands of someones - learned to harvest and weave into fabric thousands years ago. You eat breakfast on dishes, the models for which were developed over many generations of experimentation with clay and fire dating back millennia as well.

And we remember how to do these things because they have been woven into narratives. What it takes to build a house, a boat, or a pyramid is not just a list of information but a specific sequence with many if/thens. The ability to create memorable sequences is what makes great - and fun - stories. And the fact that we get enjoyment out of pure storytelling ensures its persistence as a trait much as the enjoyment we get from sex ensures reproduction. Unlike Neandertals, AMHs traded goods over enormous distances. Is it much of a leap to believe they traded stories as well?

But beyond the transmission of information, useful as it is, the most powerful stories are those with emotional components like love, loyalty, and loss which bind us with the sense that what we feel is not unique, that we are understood, and we are, collectively, so much more than we are individually. Now here's where music comes in.


Music is the emotional subconscious of storytelling. It is not coincidental that the Iliad and the Odyssey were neither read nor recited, but, rather, sung. In rhythm, melodically, and with instrumental accompaniment. Today, there are few great films or television shows that do not use music at their crucial moments of emotional decision or epiphany.

Music is actually a kind of storytelling in its own right. While lacking the specificity of nouns and verbs, it can communicate much about the internal state of a human and can do so without having to know the local dialect. It can bind a tribe together and unite otherwise hostile ones. While perhaps not a "universal language" it is pretty close. It is the great connector. Anyone who has watched an audience sing along with a rock ballad while waving lighters in the air (or glow sticks if you're into EDM) can attest to this. For a species for whom some of its earliest technological achievements were weapons, the ability to not kill each other is pretty crucial - maybe decisive.

I remember some years ago going to Fazil's place in NYC. Fazil's was a middle-eastern joint with fabulous music. One of my friends was telling me who the performers were one night and said this one was Greek, the next Turkish, and the third Armenian. "Wait," I said. "Aren't they all supposed to hate each other?" "Not when they're playing music," he replied.


To be fair to the other arts, few who have seen the cave paintings at Lascaux can fail to be moved by them. And dance and music seem intertwined to the point where many languages don't even have a separate word for them. So, perhaps my definition of "storytelling" should be a little broader. And while there is some tantalizing evidence that Neandertals may have had some kind of music as well, the sophisticated and winning combo of stories and music together seems to be a uniquely human skill.


Occasionally, a writer or musician friend begins doubting the value of what they do. How much less substantial it seems than having a "real" job (And a reliable paycheck). That's when I like to remind them that what they do is not only important - it may have saved the human race.

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