How Far Back can Oral History Go?

(This was mentioned on another thread.)

There was a case in the American northwest of an ancient skeleton found near a riverbank. It could (if studied) have shown important links between Native Americans and Asia. But study was not allowed as the local tribes claimed the remains and buried them in accordance with tribal law. I saw some spokesman from the tribe who said something on the lines of “We have oral traditions that go back 30,000 (or something) years. This guy was an indian.”

OK, so how far back can even the faintest echo of truth come through oral tradition? Can we discount such a claim? Could it be possible that anything of culture survives from the times of Homo Sapian? What do you think is the outer limit?

For Homo Sapian, read Homo Geico. Thank you.

Sorry, no cite, but a while back I read of a catholic missionary priest in the Amazon region of Brazil. He transcribed his conversations with the members of a tribe of indigenous people ina remote region. they related stories of their ancestors travelling a long distance through an ice-covered land-and crossing an ocean with floating ice! They were describing events from the end of the last Ice Age, and the migration from Asia, across the bering straights! This would be ,maybe 20,000 years ago??

Well, they actually remembered this in first person, being immortal Elves and all…ohhh, wait.

Well with regards to the Kennewick Man - the oral traditions of the north western US native tribes are steep. I wish I knew more about the actual lineage of them. I live in New England, where we have the Pequot, Mohegan, Narraganssett tribes. It’s up to debate which if the older tribes, if you subscribe to them coming over the Aleutian Island land bridge, then the furthest tribed from that local would be the oldest. So the South American Tribes and the Eastern North Americna tribes would be the oldest. In terms of how old - I wish I knew, but 30k years would not be far off for the older ones.

It could have been 20,000 yrs ago, or it could also have been closer to the end of the last ice age - more like 12,000 yrs ago.

I don’t have any cites, but I’m sure oral traditions last quite a long time. Passing information down through generations is a very valuable adaptation. Thousands of years seems reasonable to me, and I suppose for critical information tens of thousands would be necessary.

I guess I would have to wonder whether the tradition in question contained sufficient information to demonstrate that the tribe remained in the same place for 30,000 yrs, which seems like a pretty questionable assertion.

As I mentioned in another thread, it wouldn’t surprise me if “sasquatch” legends are relic oral traditions of the long-extinct giant ground sloth.

A really good book on this in Ancient Greece is “Oral Tradition and Written Record in Classical Athens” by Rosalind Thomas. I can’t remember exactly, but I think she suggested that, past three (could be two, could be four - I don’t have my notes here) or so generations oral history becomes subject to distortion by those who have a vested interest in history being another way.

30000 years? No way.

Guns Germs and Steel is another very good book. Lots of info for this thread.

That is debatable, to say the least. You assume that the final settling of all areas of the Americas was completed at the same time. This is not likely to be the case; the first immigrants to the Americas wouldn’t have thought “gee, we have to travel as far as we can before settling down.” The tribes in South America and Eastern North America could just as easily have been descendents of later immigrants who found the Pacific Northwest populated and moved on to less populated areas.


The validity of that oral history is dependent on the assumption that the traditional Bering Straits model of American settlement was accurate. As it happens, it is strongly in question.


This seems highly suspect to me. How could an oral tradition involving ice survive for thousands of years in the Amazon basin where there would have been no frame of reference for “ice”?

Sounds suspiciously like the natives were having some fun at the missionary’s expense.

It seems to me like an oral tradition passed over thousands of years is going to get seriously garbled. Sort of like a game of “telephone” played over hundreds of generations.

We have oral traditions in my family which go back 300 years, but my genealogical research has proven those traditions to be very distorted versions of the truth, or even flat wrong in some cases.

The Amazon basin includes the run off of the Andes, and the civilizations of the basin had ties with those mountains. Some of them should know what ice is. That’s just pointing out they know what snow and ice are, not debating the migration bit.

Bear in mind that, as Jared Diamond calculates in Guns, Germs & Steel, the Americas could certainly have been populated very rapidly on a historical timescale. I forget details of Diamond’s math, but my own calculator says that moving one mile a day (atrociously slowly for hunter-gatherers) would have resluted in 36,500 linear miles of migration in 100 years. Rapid expansion is typical of adaptive radiation into unoccupied ecological niches. Although this isn’t an example of “adaptive radiation,” the expansion of humans into two human-unoccupied continents might have functioned analogously. The earliest generally-agreed-upon signs of human habitation in the Americas all seem to date around the same time period, even the finds in South America, which would be concurrent with rapid expansion.

I’ve read only a little bit suggesting that the Amerricas were colonized before 13,000 years ago. I’ve seen assertions of 20,000 and 40,000 years, but I didn’t think that was a consensus view among scientists (yet). If it is the current best understanding, I’ll be another example of ignorance fought today. :slight_smile:


Or the gigantopithecus. I remember hearing back in school (from an anthropology prof) that there was some overlap between gigantopithecus and modern humans in southern China, thus giving us a possible origin for the Yeti stories.

Remember the “hobbit” bones that were found in Indonesia a few years ago? I remember hearing at the time that there was some local tribe that still told myths about “little stupid people who live in the woods.” Based on carbon dating, that’d be about 20,000 years.

I see no reason why oral traditions can’t be passed down perpetually since homo sapiens first began to speak, so 30,000 years isn’t impossible. As stories, they are interesting, and tell a lot about a culture and its values.

But as far as accuracy, forget it. I have family oral traditions passed down to me that I have tried to verify or at least coordinate with other, more reliable sources, and it’s amazing how different they can be. And that’s just 2-3 generations. After a few hundred years, any story that has much similarity with the truth is very unlikely. A tale grows with the telling.

Which makes any native indian claims about Kennewick man totally preposterous. Gimme some DNA, archeological evidence or forensic analysis any day.

What’s the difference between oral tradition and legend ? The wife had a great uncle on the south Wales coast, just west of Cardiff, who told her a legend about a local “princess” falling for a Roman soldier and throwing herself from the cliffs in despair when things went wrong. Of course the historians knew the romans had never made it that far west, silly Welsh with their silly stories.

The great uncle would have been over the moon had he lived to see archaeologists uncover a roman villa, two miles from the cliffs, in the early 80s.

The last Romans left in about 410 AD. Although I don’t know how widespread that oral tradition is today it did last into the 1970s. That’s at least over one and a half thousand years.

Not unlike similar stories in other cultures about little people, like fairies and leprechauns. But those don’t seem to relate to the Hobbit theories, so they aren’t relevant, right?

Is there any culture that doesn’t have these stories?

Sorry, you are making a match that may be only in your mind. Humans are damn good at that – cf. Nostradamus interpretations.

After a few hundred years, not much.

Oral tradition is a method. Legend is a narrative category. A narrative passed on by oral tradition can be a myth, a legend, a folktale, or a few other categories. Any story from oral tradition that purports to be historical is technically a legend.

As far as accuracy goes, Musicat is spot on. Oral tradition is obviously continuous, but there is a great deal of change. Most of the efforts to connect ancient events with folklore are frankly bogus, even when the claims are made by reputable scientists. The claims that the Greek island of Thera (Santorini) is the “real” Atlantis is one such — it requires us to ignore the vast amount of cross-cultural data on sunken city / sunken continent legends in favor of a single Greek example, and also the vast amount of physical evidence (landslips, earthquakes, etc.) that help give credence to the legends in the places they occur.

The “Hobbits” of Flores Island is another such example. The media reported that locals had legends of little people, which must have been oral tradition dating back 40 000 years or whatever it was. This ignores the worldwide narrative traditions of little people WITHOUT skeletal evidence backing it up.

In any case, oral tradition CAN be reliable over a period of several hundred years, but it is almost never 100% accurate. (I’d say “never ever” but someone might be able to disprove that.) As a general rule, people are fairly good about what they themselves have observed and what they heard first-hand or second-hand, which generally takes it back about 150 years. But this is going to vary considerably depending on the quality of your narrator, and what the narrator’s culture values in terms of creativity, innovation, preservation, accuracy, performance, etc. The anecdotal evidence presented here is fairly typical: legends are generally built around a real event, but they often vary wildly in the details. I learned a family story which I was able to trace to an event in the 1870s: the story captured the flavor of the event (i.e. family conflict), but was off on almost all of the details.

Perhaps, but i figured it was worth tossing on the table.

Here’s the original article.