The Atlantic

The Desirability of Storytellers

Among Filipino hunter-gatherers, storytelling is valued more than any other skill, and the best storytellers have the most children.
Source: Jacob Maentz / Getty Images

Once upon a time, the sun and moon argued about who would light up the sky. They fought, as anthropomorphic celestial bodies are meant to do, but after the moon proves to be as strong as the sun, they decide to take shifts. The sun would brighten the day, while the moon would illuminate the night.

This is one of several stories told by the Agta, a group of hunter-gatherers from the Philippines. They spend a lot of time spinning yarns to each other, and like their account of the sun and moon, many of these tales are infused with themes of cooperation and equality. That’s no coincidence, says Andrea Migliano, an anthropologist at University College London.

Storytelling is a universal human trait. It emerges spontaneously in childhood, and exists in all cultures thus far studied. It’s also ancient: Some specific stories have roots, these tales aren’t quite as old as time, but perhaps as old as wheels and writing. Because of its antiquity and ubiquity, some scholars have portrayed storytelling as an important human adaptation—and that’s certainly how Migliano sees it. Among the Agta, evidence that stories—and the very act of —arose partly as a way of cementing social bonds, and instilling an ethic of cooperation.

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic5 min readPsychology
The Widespread Suspicion of Opposite-Sex Friendships
In 1989, When Harry Met Sally posed a question that other pop-cultural entities have been trying to answer ever since: Can straight men and women really be close friends without their partnership turning into something else? (According to The Office,
The Atlantic6 min readPolitics
The Last Days of the Other 1 Percent
Next week’s deadline to qualify for the third Democratic debate could leave half of the large field of candidates on the sidelines.
The Atlantic9 min readPolitics
Only the Right Can Defeat White Nationalism
Law-enforcement agencies can arrest terrorists, but they cannot settle existential arguments about the nature of American democracy.