Studies of how cultures without writing maintained their scientific knowledge in ritual, dance and song have led to a better appreciation of their complex understanding of the world By Lindy Alexander.

Memory systems and ancient knowledge

Lynne Kelly at Stonehenge.
Lynne Kelly at Stonehenge.
Credit: Damian Kelly

Dr Lynne Kelly was initially reluctant to visit Britain’s most famous megaliths. “My husband, Damian, had just finished an archaeology degree and wanted to visit Stonehenge,” Kelly says. “I had no real interest in archaeology. I wanted to visit Jane Austen’s house in Bath – I thought that was real history. I wasn’t interested in old stones.”

Every year more than a million people wander around the imposing stone circles of Stonehenge, wondering about the significance of the larger sarsens and the smaller “bluestones”. The most common explanations are that the stones are a prehistoric temple aligned with the movements of the sun or a sacred burial ground. Having given in to a walk around the site with her husband in 2008, Kelly, a science writer and educator, found herself conjecturing a purpose for the structure that had never been proposed before.

At the time Kelly was undertaking her PhD at La Trobe University, exploring indigenous peoples’ stories around animal behaviour, when she became intrigued by the depth of knowledge many indigenous people have. “The Navajo have classified over 700 insects and it’s all in memory,” she says. “They have fully classified each insect’s behaviours, habitat and uses. But they also have every bird, every animal and all the plants. I found myself wondering, how can they possibly remember so much stuff?”

The answer is that people in non-literate cultures use song, story, dance and mythology to help remember enormous amounts of factual information. “It’s well known that Aboriginal elders used songlines, which are sung narratives of the landscape,” she says. “This is similar to the ancient Greek orators who would use a technique called the ‘method of loci’, where they would mentally walk through streetscapes or grand buildings in their imagination, called memory palaces, to help them memorise their speeches.”

It was a common practice among ancient cultures around the world. “Elders held entire field guides to all the animals and plants, navigational charts, genealogies, laws, resource rights, trade agreements, land management, astronomy and geology,” says Kelly. “But rather than it being written down, it was all in their memory.” 

In the design of Stonehenge, Kelly saw a set of ordered locations that would serve as memory prompts for the Neolithic people who were slowly transitioning from a hunter–gatherer society to a farming community. From her research on indigenous memory and knowledge systems, Kelly believed that the placement of the stones was likely to be designed to allow the settlers to practise their memorisation, to teach their vast knowledge about the world and to perform it for people within the community. “Once they settled, they were no longer visiting memory locations across the countryside,” she says. “A circle of stones is the perfect solution for people to perform songs and rituals so they can store and maintain that knowledge. Stonehenge is really an ancient information technology system – while we can see the structure, we just can’t access the data.”

Back in Australia, Kelly became obsessed with her theory and spent the next six months compulsively researching. “Being a scientist, I was trying to disprove my idea,” she says. “But everything I found only confirmed that my theory was right.” Rather than feeling elated, Kelly was paralysed by self-doubt. “I felt pretentious in the extreme. Who the hell am I to say I’ve got new ideas about these sites that archaeologists have been working on for decades?”

Supported by her PhD supervisor, who suggested she might need to change topics if her theory checked out, Kelly headed back to Britain in 2010, this time to meet with renowned archaeologist and curator of the museum at Avebury, Dr Rosamund Cleal. Cleal is the lead editor and contributing author of publisher English Heritage’s seminal book Stonehenge in its Landscape. Kelly read the enormous volume and found nothing about memory systems.

“I was physically sick before that first meeting with Ros because this was my big test,” Kelly says. “She had granted me a one-hour meeting, but we talked for four.” Cleal asked Kelly to return the next day and to give her something to read overnight to help get her head around the idea of indigenous knowledge. Kelly passed her Howard Morphy’s book Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge.

The next morning Cleal handed the book back and said her ideas of Stonehenge had shifted. At the end of their second meeting, Cleal told Kelly that her theory was “well worth pursuing”. “That’s the moment when everything changed,” Kelly says. “Ros is one of the most respected archaeologists in the world.”

Kelly completed her PhD exploring this new theory in 2013 and it was published by Cambridge University Press as Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies. In 2016 her research was published for a general readership under the title The Memory Code. While she delivered a new and rigorous theory on the purpose of Stonehenge, she believes there is a greater implication. “The most important outcome of my research is not that we have a new idea about Stonehenge. It’s that this new idea of Stonehenge shows we have not recognised indigenous intellect to the degree that we should have.”

This is something with which Dr Duane Hamacher wholeheartedly agrees. Hamacher is an astronomer based at Monash University’s Indigenous Studies Centre, and has worked closely with Aboriginal elders to understand how Indigenous people developed and retained astronomical and geological knowledge. “Over the last couple of decades there’s been a lot of work looking at scientific knowledge encoded within Indigenous traditions,” Hamacher says. “From fire management to agriculture, biologists, geologists, meteorologists and ecologists have shown that Aboriginal traditions do have a tremendous amount of scientific knowledge.”

In the 17th century Galileo Galilei incorrectly declared the moon had nothing to do with the tides, but the Yolngu people in north-eastern Arnhem Land have understood for centuries that tides are related to the phases of the moon. Researchers have shown that Aboriginal people had complex number systems and used stars and oral maps to travel extensively and establish trade routes across Australia. “There is so much scientific knowledge encoded within Aboriginal traditions,” says Hamacher. “For example, they know that when certain stars rise and set this correlates to certain changes in the seasons, as well as to animal and plant behaviour.”

Hamacher says he feels exasperated that Indigenous people’s scientific knowledge has traditionally been dismissed because it was conveyed in song and dance, rather than in a written medium. “So much complex information has been passed down through these memory techniques, but we tend to look at oral traditions and see fairytales and myths,” Hamacher says. “One of the things that a lot of the elders tell me when I’m working with them is, ‘We have science.’ They’re very frustrated that their knowledge is not being recognised for the scientific contributions it can make.” 

According to Hamacher, academic institutions are now starting to appreciate the contribution Indigenous people can make to science. “Ten years ago, no astrophysics or astronomy classes would have had any Indigenous astronomy content, but now they do,” he says. “I developed an Indigenous astronomy undergraduate course at University of New South Wales and now other universities are looking at doing the same.”

Kelly, too, can see the change within societal institutions. She is now working with students at Malmsbury Primary School in central Victoria to teach ancient memory methods. “We are making a memory trail, so that means the kids walk around the school and attach important events to physical locations,” she says. “They start in the year 1830 and go right up to the present day. Embedding knowledge in the landscape gives them a physical link to events and information.”

Looking back, Kelly says she feels embarrassed that as an educated Australian she was ignorant of the depth of the intellectual achievements and knowledge of Australian Aborigines and other indigenous people. “I had not recognised it at all,” she says. But through her theory of Stonehenge and the increasing academic interest in indigenous knowledge, Kelly is hopeful that intricacies of indigenous intellect will finally be acknowledged. “Indigenous cultures have an integrated knowledge system on which they then build complexity,” she says. “But there are so few fully initiated elders left. We’ve got to learn from them and we’ve got to learn fast.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 21, 2017 as "Living libraries".

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Lindy Alexander is a freelance writer and researcher.

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