When Practical Knowledge Meant Power: The Memory Code

by | April 26, 2017

In her latest book, The Memory Code, science writer Dr. Lynne Kelly details her thesis that the primary purpose of monuments ranging from the statues on Easter Island to Neolithic Stonehenge was not as tributes to the gods but rather as extremely effective memory technologies used by oral cultures to encode many hundreds of facts crucial to survival. 

Three Part Totem - Martin Lopatka

“Three Part Totem” by Martin Lopatka, CreativeCommons 2.0

While the author has also penned The Skeptics Guide to the Paranormal, I actually heard about this book through the Art of Memory forums, a discussion place for Memory Sport enthusiasts. I picked up the Australian edition, but it got its North American release in February. It was a happy discovery that, besides talking about memory technology, the book also theorized so much about the power held by the knowledge keepers (“priests”, “wise-ones”, etc.) in ancient societies. Those who held the most practical knowledge were the most powerful and not those who held the most wealth.

Archaeologists can make errors when theorizing about ancient practices, dances, songs, monuments and artifacts through a modern lens. Dr. Kelly gives the example of commonly mistaking any ceremonial space that has human bones as a burial tomb, thus relating it to death. When you realize there are actually more bones from other creatures, mixed up and littering the floor along with the human ones, you have to wonder. Even looking at the Wikipedia entry for ‘chambered cairn’ (man-made mound or tunnel of stones) it equates them to burial tombs by definition. There is a brilliant bit at the start of the book where she describes a ritual scene complete with elaborate headdresses, the drinking of a blood-like liquid known to have hallucinogenic effects, chanting people on their knees, smoke/incense etc, implements of torture… and you realize she is describing Catholicism in a way that could be interchanged with anything one might imagine from 5000 years ago.

Hunter-gatherer people may be less complex in terms of their hierarchies, cities and politics; it should never be assumed that they are less complex intellectually.

– Lynne Kelly “The Memory Code”

Kelly instead paints a much more compelling picture of these stone cairns and other ‘monuments’ as “restricted memory spaces” meaning places to store and learn visual, tactile, and audible memory cues restricted to the highest-ranking knowledge-holders or elders.

If you haven’t heard of the techniques of today’s memory champions, you may not be familiar with the term “memory space” or “memory palace.” For an entertaining introduction, read Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with EinsteinI think I found The Memory Code all the more rewarding because I was already familiar with the mnemonic techniques and had already put them into practice for memorizing shuffled decks of cards, hundreds of numeric digits, long lists and historical facts. Read Moonwalking with Einstein first and Dr. Kelly’s interpretations seem almost completely obvious.

Throughout the book she reinforces a common narrative whether talking about European neolithic, or early Australian or American peoples. Our hunter-gatherer and nomadic ancestors were capable of astonishing feats of memory. And a few cultures still practice them today; there is evidence that accurate memories of the geological landscape have been passed down intact from as far back as nearly 10,000 years ago. Here’s the story she paints:

  1. Roving hunter-gatherer societies are essentially egalitarian as there is equal wealth. (When you travel, you don’t burden yourselves with unnecessary possessions.)
  2. Natural features of the landscape are used as memory cues across great distances. The cues are used to memorize vast practical knowledge (plants, animal behaviours, navigation, ancestry and laws.)
  3. As the population starts to develop farming and settles longer in one place, it becomes less practical to revisit all the landscape features – so they build their own features instead on a smaller scale. (e.g. Stonehenge and other stone and wood-post circles, walking paths, etc.) They can then walk these instead and hang their memories on them.
  4. As time passes, stationary people can gather wealth and also specialize in certain knowledge themselves, thus reducing the power once held by the elder knowledge keepers.
  5. Eventually the knowledge keepers are reduced in power to such a degree that they are responsible only for things like creation mythology, the gods, and stories less connected to practical knowledge.

Another cool fact is that the songs and stories told to record information were modified as needed with new facts and this was a common practice in which the elders were fully aware and able to distinguish the additions to the original stories as artificial.

I can’t really do justice to the sheer number of memory aids she describes from across the world and across time. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the capacity of the human mind, ancient cultures, and the origins of religious power.


Cover Photo: “Three Part Totem” by Martin LopatkaCC 2.0 License

2 thoughts on “When Practical Knowledge Meant Power: The Memory Code

  1. Tim Underwood

    “Eventually the knowledge keepers are reduced in power to such a degree that they are responsible only for things like creation mythology, the gods, and stories less connected to practical knowledge.”

    The new agriculture based hierarchies would make good use of these knowledge keepers by employing them to legitimize the new ruling class. King James, many centuries after the imperial compilation of the Bible, made sure his English version would support his divine rights. An already existing English translation, by a translator who was subsequently executed for his scholarly endeavors, was much less supportive of temporal authority.

  2. Bubba Kincaid

    Power has always found it necessary to find its own means of restraining its own exigencies.


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