Chapman University researchers have published new findings on the oral tradition skills of a small forager society located in the Bolivian Amazon rainforest. The Tsimane are an indigenous population of about 16,000 who depend on gardening, gathering, hunting and fishing for their survival.

The Tsimane use stories, music and dream interpretation to pass on traditional knowledge from older to younger generations. Researchers studied how Tsimane age, story knowledge, abilities and available audiences may affect patterns of information transferred throughout their life. Key findings include:

-Storytelling skills are most developed among older adults who demonstrate superior knowledge of traditional stories and who report telling stories most.

-Important information transmitted via storytelling typically flows from older to younger generations and stories are primarily learned from older same-sex relatives, especially grandparents.

-The oral tradition provides a specialized late-life service niche for Tsimane adults who have accumulated important experience and knowledge relevant to foraging and sociality, but have lost comparative advantage in more physically demanding domains.

Tsimane man telling a story

Photo courtesy of Chris Von Rueden, Tsimane Health and Life History Project

“This effect may extend to modern societies as well,” said Eric Schniter, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor in Chapman University’s Economic Science Institute, and lead author on the study. “A large survey of labor market productivity found that for jobs where problem solving, learning and speed are important, production decreases at around 50 years of age. In jobs where experience and verbal abilities are most important, older workers’ maintain a relatively high productivity level. By considering the benefits received from oral transmission of acquired information, whether for traditional subsistence economies or employees in modern labor markets, we may better explain humans’ cognitive capabilities that are unusually extended in their later post-reproductive years. The role of post-reproductive adults in human socialization and education of youngsters is truly unique among animals.”

Storytelling has long served as an important means of transmitting information within cultures. It is especially vital in societies such as the Tsimane, which lack books and other means of information storage. Previous research has shown that Tsimane adults play a role in politics and conflict resolution, but there is now evidence they also educate younger generations via oral traditions.

Nearly 97 percent of stories told by Tsimane contain information regarding food production or sociality. The older storytellers were, the more information they had gathered to pass on. For instance, researchers learned that one decade is associated with learning an additional 11 stories. Adult men continue to learn more stories at a faster rate. Women report knowing three fewer stories than same-aged men at 35; they know 33 fewer stories at 65.

The study, called Information transmission and the oral tradition: Evidence of a late-life service niche for Tsimane Amerindians, was published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior. The research was conducted over the course of several field visits in collaboration with The Tsimane Health and Life History Project. Researchers identified and questioned 54 story-knowledgeable adults ages 19-77 about their telling and sourcing of 120 traditional Tsimane stories.

This research was an interdisciplinary project between anthropologists and economists housed in Chapman University’s Economic Science Institute. Authors include Eric Schniter, Nathaniel T. Wilcox and Hillard S. Kaplan of Chapman; Bret A. Beheim of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig Germany; and Michael Gurven of UCSB’s Integrative Anthropological Sciences Unit.

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As an academically distinguished center of learning, Chapman University attracts extraordinary students and faculty from around the globe. Its ten schools and colleges foster a vibrant intellectual community, and provide extensive opportunities for students to learn, grow and discover alongside remarkable faculty. It is ranked 5th among Western Region schools by U.S. News and World Report. The University is home to 8,500 students pursuing bachelor, master and doctoral degrees, and is alma mater to more than 40,000 alumni found throughout the United States and the world. Now celebrating its 157th year, Chapman is known for its distinguishing strengths in leadership and civic engagement, in the arts and entertainment disciplines, and in specialized sectors of technology and science. The University is comprised of its main campus in Orange, California, and the Rinker Health Science campus for graduate health science programs in Irvine, California. Visit us at www.chapman.edu.

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