Oldest accurate oral traditions?

I was searching for (and failing to find) scholarly attention given to Lynne Kelly’s hypothesis on ancient monuments and came across this article claiming Australian Aboriginal cultures with accurate oral traditions going back tens of thousands of years. This reminded me of another case: an internet gadfly named E.P. Grondine who (among other things) insists that his Native American ancestors have accurate oral traditions describing their crossing of the Bering landbridge and witnessing the (debunked) Younger Dryas impact event. (When I questioned him on this he indicated his desires that all Europeans leave the US and that I be roasted on a spit.)
So–I’m no expert in this area, but I am very profoundly skeptical with the idea of accurate (or even minimally detectable) oral traditions going back 10,000+ years. I’m wondering what evidence there is for and the age of the oldest oral traditions that survived long enough to be recorded.

I’m not sure how what is being described in the article is (purely) oral tradition anyway. Take the star maps. It’s like a set of written instructions. Think of it as, well, a map - which is how it’s used - a map isn’t an oral tradition any more than written history is. Maybe the associated stories are an oral tradition, but they’re in no way stand alone. It’s almost like a religion, where you have your book and then your oral material.

Which leads me on to addressing your question. Early religions, predating (mass) literacy, seem to fall into the same area; and really early religions predating writing must be truly oral traditions. I might say that there’s nothing about them that’s accurate; others might disagree.


I have to agree. You can’t play telephone with 20 people and get accuracy, how are you gonna have accuracy across tens of thousands of years and millions of people?

Do you know what exactly does the oral tradition say? I would question how a band of hunter-gatherers would even know that they were on a land bridge, since it was hundreds of miles across. Also, the crossing would not have been a simple directional migration, since the bands would have had no idea they were entering a new continent. They would have been going back and forth locally, just extending their range eastward bit by bit over a period of centuries, rather than moving steadily in one direction.

I bought Lynne Kelly’s book, and I’m busy reading it. It’s the most interesting book I’ve read for years, scholarly and well-researched. It’s genuinely eye-opening, and has seriously altered my view of oral cultures. These cultures have (and had) a depth and scope and complexity of transmitted knowledge that I wasn’t previously aware of.

The book provides insights into the methods by which large quantities of detailed and accurate information can be preserved intact over long periods of time in oral cultures. It is we who are ‘illiterate’ in these techniques.

Some examples she gives of longevity are:

Lynne is active on this message board, and I hope she will comment.

The idea is that there was a “priesthood”, an elite group whose purpose was to remember things that the population needed to have remembered. They used many mnemonic aids, only shared the full data set with people who had been inducted into the group and trained by them, and reviewed the songs, dances, etc. in a regular cycle, providing quality control.

As a for instance, a population would need to know every plant, insect, and animal in it’s territory, which were edible, which were poisonous or venomous, when they sprouted, reproduced, or could be harvested. And more. This was information necessary for survival and the remembering group was strongly motivated to be accurate. The stories, songs, etc. used to help remember the information could change without losing the information that was being carried.

There are creation myths that go back several tens of thousands of years. We know the myths are old because they’re found both in the Americas and Eurasia (and Egypt, etc,) despite that there’d been little contact with the Americas for thousands of years. Googling ‘Michael Witzel Laurasian mythology’ will show lots of hits. (I haven’t bought or read Witzel’s books; Here is a review at a register-for-free site. Of course the passage of many centuries means these stories mutated, and the stories may have been quite fictionalized even at the very beginning.

Could the creation myths have arisen independently, rather than from a common source? If they did, why are the creation myths in Australia, New Guinea, or southern Africa so different from the ‘Laurasian’ myths?

So oral traditions can be maintained for long periods of time if the motive is strong enough.

The pre-literate ancient Irish had a legal system in which agnatic kinship was very important for inheritance and tort settlements, so there was motive to preserve pedigrees. The desire to reflect one’s agnatic status still shows up in modern-era Welsh names like ‘Humphrey ap Hugh ap David ap Howell ap Gronw.’ (That example name might just be a short form: Humphrey might have memorized a name showing even more generations, which he proudly passed onto his own children.)

No, I don’t recall that he went into specifics much beyond "buy my (self-published) book", but it has been 10 years or more since I last engaged with him. (You have to read the description.)

Here is the review from* Publishers Weekly*.

That review is sloppy and inaccurate, the Kirkus review is a little better. But neither of these are well qualified to judge the claims. We need to look at the opinions of qualified scientists.

On the SD, it may be worth noting that Lynne Kelly was a founding member of Australian Skeptics, was awarded ‘Skeptic of the Year’ by them in 2004, after publishing The Skeptic’s Guide to the Paranormal. Her books Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies published by (Cambridge University Press) and The Memory Code originate from her Ph.D. thesis. Her bachelor’s degree was in Engineering, and she has also written school books on basic physics.

There is also a free ebook available for download, which seems to be a mini-version of The Memory Code:

Grounded: Indigenous Knowing in a Concrete Reality by Lynne Kelly

To me this theory immediately rings true. Kelly has gone to great lengths to document and provide proper authority for every fact she quotes, as the extensive footnotes and bibliography of scientific papers and books show.

While I have no doubt that there have been cultures who have successfully recorded some information for thousands of years, I think it’s worth noting that most did not. Or, even in the case where they did have such a tradition, it doesn’t mean that they used it for everything and so outside of whatever they specifically did record, you probably expect to see almost everything forgotten and morphed by the time you had passed 2-3 generations. If you look at fairy tales, board games, language itself, deities like Marduk who started out as the patron deity of a city and later became the head of the entire pantheon, etc. it becomes clear that things can and did go the telephone route on everything from small to big things.

In The Memory Code, Lynne Kelly specifically mentions the problem of memories mutating generation-to-generation and shows that specific countermeasures were devised to protect from that. For example, by restricting the singing of sacred songs to a priestly caste and making the lyrics and melody memorable, the risk of accidental mutation is greatly reduced.

There are various reasons a society may want to preserve knowledge for centuries. For example, severe drought may be very rare, but when it does come the society needs to remember which weeds are deadly and which are merely untasty but nutritious. As another example (though I don’t think Lynne mentions this) I read that the illiterate Andamanese were prepared for the Great Tsunami of 2004 despite that it had been generations since the last tsunami.

The problem is that you, me , we all are from cultures which write. Basically there is hardly any settled culture today that does not have writing and that has been the case for centuries is not millrnia. Obviously the written word is a lot more reliable than oral memory. However, as has been said, when oral tradition is the only thing you have, you are incentivised take steps to ensure accuracy.

I think that the question is inherently impossible to answer. How do we verify that a very old oral tradition is accurate? We need to compare it to some other source. But if some other source exists, then how do you confirm that the keepers of the oral tradition didn’t also have access to that other source?

Yes, that is what I was searching for, and never found–serious discussions/critiques of the book by degreeed professionals in the field. IMHO any time a claim of a new single unifying principle that explains a wide-ranging set of mysteries is made it deserves a huge level of skepticism. And when years after being published it appears to have generated no buzz in the scientific community whatsoever–positive or negative–that I can find (other than claims that “the lurkers support me in email”) that silence seems to speak volumes. Absent a significant percentage of archeologists pubicly slapping themselves on the foreheads and lamenting “how could I have been so blind” I’m considering this to be Yet Another Confident Stonehenge Explaination that will disappear without a ripple.

But that is all a tangent to my actual question in the thread about the oldest accurate oral traditions.

Here is an interesting piece on the

Aboriginal accounts. It is interesting that they are from “historical” interviews, not modern ones (and therefore quite possible conducted by Europeans believing in a global flood, but we promise that none of our questions were leading.)

Even written history is not reliable. Think of all the different takes on the US civil war. And there are many different views on what happened in the 1930s. Color me skeptical.

Define accurate. It’s not going to be a transcript like those prepared by a Court Reporter.

But generally speaking archeology is the best bet to see.

Restricting the special knowledge to an elite few who remember it for everybody else has its drawbacks as well; I vaguely recall (heh) a story of a group that had no written language being contacted by European missionaries, who wrote down who the local power groups were, what the local history was, etc. Two generations later, the oral tradition no longer matched the written record, apparently because there had been political reasons to ‘remember’ that such-and-such had been cousins with so-and-so which legitimized someone’s claims to something-or-other.

Yes, I’m vague on the details. But who are you gonna believe, some dead piece of paper or me, Pope Brossa? Oh, you remember it different? Well I’ve got 500 guys here who remember it my way.

Also I find it very hard to belive a cultural elete few being able to pass on their special knowledge in an unbroken chain for 10,000 years without occasionally being completely wiped out by the ocasional coup, war, famine, or disease.