Replied to a tweet by Greg McVerryGreg McVerry (Twitter)
Without checking, I have to think that I carefully couched my wording there. For that audience, I did use the more famous example of Stonehenge, for which there is some pretty solid evidence for my claim. There are other examples in the archaeological record that certainly are older and in other cultural contexts. I can easily think of standing stones that are as old as 12,000 years old for which the same case could be made in borderline agricultural societies. The tough part is that would have required the definition of standing stones and a lot of other pieces which I didn’t feel I had the time to create the context for in that setting.

I imagine that there are potentially examples of this sort of behavior going back as far as 30-40,000 years or more, but there is is no direct (known) archaeological evidence left to make such cases. There are oral histories of indigenous peoples in Australia that indicate memories of things that do exist in the geological record to provide some evidence of this.

I’ll also point out that astronomical use is NOT equal to memory use. To make that claim you’d need a lot of additional evidence. In fact, I might suggest something stronger, particularly about Stonehenge. Stonehenge’s primary use was not an astronomical one. Its primary use was as a mnemonic device. The astronomical one was important for the ritual practice (we would call it spaced repetition in modern psychology and pedagogic contexts), but wholly tangential.

If you’re interested in the underlying evidence, Dr. Lynne Kelly has an excellent Ph.D. thesis on the topic, but you might find her book The Memory Code, which expands on the thesis, more accessible. She’s also got a great bibliography of these topics on her website.

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Chris Aldrich

I'm a biomedical and electrical engineer with interests in information theory, complexity, evolution, genetics, signal processing, theoretical mathematics, and big history. I'm also a talent manager-producer-publisher in the entertainment industry with expertise in representation, distribution, finance, production, content delivery, and new media.

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  1. @boffosock thanks for the book link. I will read into it, just came off a bit Eurocentric to me to claim one neolithic standing stone monument in UK was first. Maybe it is, but it sent my spidey senses tingling.

    Always thought of Stonehendge as a burial ground with astronomical features (same as the pyramids this way)….

    Not sure I would agree that an astronomical calendar isn’t a mnemonic device. The entire point is to remind you “today is today or today is equinox” If calendar’s are memory devices I don’t know why I spend so much time failing to manage mine.

    Syndicated copies:

    1. Dr. Kelly’s thesis specifically entails societies on the verge of moving from hunter/gathering or semi-nomadic lifeways and beginning to settle into farming and agricultural-based modes of living. This timing quirk is more responsible than other factors in determining which societies would have been “first”. I don’t recall that she invokes Jared Diamond’s thesis from “Guns, Germs and Steel”, but it’s far more likely that the ordering is a function of geography and environment than anything else.

      Her theory (and an incredibly well supported one) about Stonehenge as a memory palace becomes primary over the other Stonehenge ideas and in some sense those others actually become supporting pieces. Her theory also has incredibly important implications about how we should reframe our cultural viewpoints of indigenous societies from a sociological standpoint particularly including their religions/mythologies.

      If you hold the most common current western cultural conceptualization of a mnemonic device, then it is likely a very limited and narrow one. More advanced views that include the method of loci, the Major System, Person Action Object (PAO), and the several dozens of generally “new” indigenous methods that Kelly describes will provide a much more expansive view. As a result many of the astronomical calendars in history are simply time keeping devices and do not serve as mnemonic ones. Stonehenge is one of the exceptions, and even in cases like it in which there are dual memory and timekeeping uses, many of those locations were reasonably far from population centers and the ritual visiting of those sites would have required timekeeping on the local peoples’ parts to know to travel to visit those structures for their rituals, which I now firmly believe were more memory-focused than religion or burial focused. (Relatively few graves were found at Stonehenge.) In fact, I might go so far as to hypothesize that a modern American is more likely to have more bizarre and less useful religious beliefs and practices than most indigenous cultures we’re aware of. Sadly, evidence of ancient cultures’s religious practices is too sparse to do much with.

      For some quick/short introductions to her work, you might try an excellent podcast she did with theoretical physicist Sean Carroll or the too short TED Talk she did a while back. From an experimental perspective, you could actually directly use some of the methods she describes in her book Memory Craft with your kids and see some pretty quick results. It also might make for some fun, quality family time.

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