The Oldest Art

The oldest art form in human culture is the story. I am the veteran of several arguments on this topic with would-be anthropologists who claim the title for dance, music, cave paintings, and double-entry bookkeeping. But I stick to my guns: story got there first.

I date the beginning of human culture by the beginning of human spoken communication. I’m talking about speech that transcends snarls of anger, grunts of lust, and screams of fear. I say human culture began with sentences at least as complex as “You going to eat the rest of that leg of ibex, or what?” Conversation.

Knowing human beings as I do, I’m willing to bet my wallet that as soon as our ancestors learned to communicate with each other by speech, they started developing skills to entertain, impress, and hoodwink each other. Since truth wasn’t always up to the task (it isn’t today, so why should it have been for cave folk?), the act of embellishment was discovered, and fiction was born.

Of course story doesn’t have to be fiction. But isn’t it, usually? Ask most memoirists today, and they’ll agree that a certain amount of “editing” is involved.

So return with me now to the Primal Circle, a bunch of human beings (with some Neanderthal DNA in the mix, although polite cave folk don’t talk about how it got there) gathered together around a campfire after a hard day of hunting.

They talk:


         “Good gnus, Murray,” says the Boss, an ancient woman in her fortieth year. “How’d you manage to kill two in the same day?”

         Murray swallowed his bite of barbecued gnu, wiped his beard, took a swig of banana beer, belched, and began to spin his yarn. “Well, see, I was walking down by the Muchmuck River, talking to my friend Cedric, the African Grey parrot who knows stuff, and he told me that on the other side of the Muchmuck was a plain called the Banana Savanna, where I would find some gnus. I guess I was busy listening to Cedric, and not watching where I was going, and I tripped over a log and fell right into what passes for water in the Muchmuck river. I stood up, sputtering and listening to my parrot so-called friend laughing at me, when the log sprouted stubby arms and legs, swished a mighty tail, opened a grin full of razor-sharp stalactites and stalagmites, and slithered into the water. Well I took off with the current, going like gangbusters, but I could hear the splash of that croc getting closer and closer to my feet. If it hadn’t have been for Cedric dive-bombing the river-lizard, why—”

         “Aw baloney,” said Hugo, a burly fellow who looked like a cross between Burt Reynolds and a Rottweiler. “Not how it happened at all.”

         “Shut up, Hugo,” said several cave folk, using different combinations of words, some of which we don’t have anymore, and others I don’t dare repeat.

         “But we all crossed Muchmuck River on that log,” Hugo insisted. “There wasn’t any crocodile. And what’s more—”

         The Boss spoke. “Let Murray tell it.”

         “Why?” Hugo demanded. “I was the one who brought back the gnus, not Murray.”

         “Murray tells it better,” the Boss said. “I have spoken.”

Ever since Murray recounted the hunts each evening to his fellow cave folk, the subtleties of storytelling have been honed and practiced and have entertained and enlightened listeners and readers. Many of the rules and tools of fiction were invented by the earliest of storytellers. And one aspect of the art form remains to this day: whoever tells the best story gets the most attention.




3 Responses

  1. 8:58 here in Vermont, EST, you Californians are just doing your morning ablutions but I’m already at my computer with a cup of strong coffee, having a good laugh. Geat way to start the day! Thanks, John. Storytelling surely is paramount in our lives, and your historical blog goes to show it, My favorite line here, I think, is “I was the one who brought back the gnus…” The pun sent me weeping into my cup!
    Maybe John will tell us next how and when puns came about. Early on for his ancestors, I suspect.

  2. Nancy, thanks for tolerating my puns. I don’t get it about puns: they’re the only form of humor that doesn’t derive from suffering and sorrow, and yet puns are the only jokes that make the listener groan with pain. I think puns are delightful, and if they were good enough for Shakespeare and Nabokov, they’re good enough for us mere mortals.

  3. Wonderful, John, as usual.

    One might argue that dance, music, and cave paintings are all forms of story. And as for double-entry bookkeeping, we KNOW that’s fiction.

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