Among Filipino hunter-gatherers, storytelling is valued more than any other skill, and the best storytellers have the most children.
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 that stretch back for around 6,000 years. As I’ve written before, 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, her team found evidence that stories—and the very act of storytelling—arose partly as a way of cementing social bonds, and instilling an ethic of cooperation.