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Cultural knowledge is transmitted today through various mediums from the written word to the digital. Yet oral tradition has been the primary mechanism to pass cultural knowledge since the evolution of human language.

Over generations, oral tradition has passed knowledge about humans’ cultural relationship with the environment, including land rights and resource access, large-scale cooperation, and even subsistence practices and solutions to unpredictable situations. In fact, oral tradition is a fundamental form of human niche construction, as it facilitates the construction of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK)—the intimate relationship between living things and the environment. As the scholar of comparative oral tradition John Miles Foley says of this, “oral tradition stands out as the single most dominant communicative technology of our species, as both a historical fact and, in many areas still, a contemporary reality” (1999, 1–2).

Many other aspects of Indigenous life such as cosmology, landscape knowledge, social institutions and their accompanying cultural norms and values, are passed on through oral tradition. These cultural features have ramifications for traditional ecological and social knowledge, both influence the ways in which indigenous groups perceive and interact with the world around them. Knowledge is transmitted within nuclear families and learned through experience. TEK is an expression of the coevolution between Indigenous cultures and the ecosystems they inhabit that has accumulated and developed over generations. TEK includes knowledge about the physical, technological, and social environment. In many cases, the accumulated knowledge is the result of trial and error, a process in which populations adapt to their environments and modify their environments to fit their specific, place-based needs. How does it happen?

Oral tradition is a fundamental form of human niche construction, as it facilitates the construction of traditional ecological knowledge—the intimate relationship between living things and the environment.

Imagined ecologies and constructed niches

In evolutionary biology, niche construction theory (NCT) highlights the ability for organisms to alter their evolutionary trajectory by modifying their environment and selective pressures. John Odling-Smee and colleagues coined the term “niche construction,” “the process whereby organisms, through their metabolism, their activities, and their choices, modify their own and/or each other’s niches.” The idea that organisms are agents that actively engage with and alter their environments, and are not just passive actors that simply respond to environmental cues is not new. In 1983, renowned geneticist and evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin had already observed that “organisms do not adapt to their environments; they construct them out of the bits and pieces of the external world.” How do they construct them?

An essential concept of NCT is ecological inheritance, which is defined as any circumstance where an organism encounters a modified environmental state where selective pressures have changed through niche construction. This modified environment is then inherited by offspring and other organisms within the area, which creates a feedback loop between ecological and evolutionary processes. These feedback loops can create novel evolutionary trajectories for the organism and potentially other organisms in the ecosystem. When a beaver constructs its dam, for example, it not only creates an environment conducive to fostering offspring, but it alters the aquatic ecosystem, which impacts the surrounding biodiversity. This modified ecosystem is then inherited by the beaver’s offspring. Similar examples include weaver bird nests, and domestication of fauna and flora. Proponents of NCT argue that niche construction is a fundamental process of evolutionary change along with genetic drift, gene flow, mutation, and natural selection. Despite increasing interest, the importance of niche construction as an evolutionary process is heavily debated in evolutionary biology.

Photograph of a green and rocky forest in Canada, showing a beaver dam almost 2.5m high

Image description: A small stream runs through bright green foliage with trees and rocks on either side. In the distance a beaver dam, consisting of branches and twigs can be seen.
Caption: An example of a beaver dam, almost 2.5m high.
Martin Cathrae/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Niche construction does not always involve direct modification of the physical environment but can be extended to the social environment and behavior. With new social niches a new selection force comes into play as preferences for cooperative partners are structured by cultural norms and institutions. This is particularly important for humans because our relationship with the environment is significantly enhanced and intensified by culture. Culture, combined with our amazing creativity, has allowed us to construct imagined ecologies and social institutions (e.g., land rights, social norms, marriage rules, taboos) over generations, which reinforce, constrain, and facilitate human-environment interactions. These constructed social niches greatly expand the realms of interaction and cooperation between individuals and groups. Our cities, built environments, and social institutions are evidence of niche construction so inherent in our lives that it’s easy to forget that we do it. Yet, human niche construction processes are so potent that we have affected Earth’s biodiversity and climate to the point that we have entered a new geological age—the Anthropocene.

Oral tradition as niche construction

An excellent example of oral tradition as niche construction can be found in the cosmology of the Martu, an Indigenous group living in Western Australia. Martu cosmology, called Jukurrpa (“The Dreaming”), and their practices of land burning are inseparable (Bird et al. 2016, 75). Martu’s intentional burning of the landscape to hunt for sand monitor lizards increases the density of the lizard population and reduces the spread of large wildfires, while also providing a higher and more predictable hunting yield. Additionally, Martu land burning affects the distribution of other organisms such as the hill kangaroo. This small game hunting by fire not only has important effects on Martu subsistence practices and net caloric returns, it creates and maintains social relationships and networks of cooperation through food sharing. Fire is the shaping of country, the reenactment of creation, and the holding of The Dreaming, and it sustains the ties that bind people. Not only does Martu ontology, cosmology, and oral tradition reinforce and perpetuate niche constructing behaviors, The Dreaming itself is an act of niche construction. These combined traditions construct social networks and alter parameters of territories through a large-scale shared imagination and group identity.

Fire is the shaping of country, the reenactment of creation, and the holding of The Dreaming, and it sustains the ties that bind people. Human culture and social learning have led to our unparalleled ability to adapt to and modify the environment. Humans have entangled relationships with the landscape that often includes imagined and culturally constructed engagements. This knowledge has been and continues to be passed down through oral tradition. Oral tradition, therefore, influences the way people interact with the social and physical world around them and transmits knowledge and institutions that affect cultural norms, behavior, and the environment. The stories passed down through oral tradition create shared imaginations that contribute to TEK as well as group identity and large-scale cooperation, facilitating and significantly impacting the construction of our ecological and cultural niches. Oral tradition not only transmits, constrains, and reinforces niche constructing behaviors, it is a fundamental form of niche construction itself.

John K. Murray is a doctoral student in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University and an affiliated graduate student of the Institute of Human Origins. His research focuses on the origins of modern humans and heat treatment technology in the Middle Stone Age.

Robert Acio Benitez is a doctoral student in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona. His research interests include hominin-environment interactions, stone tool technology, and evolutionary theory.

Sandra L. López Varela is contributing editor for the Archaeology Division.

Cite as: Murray, John K. and Robert Acio Benitez. 2020. “Weaving Environmental Knowledge and Oral Tradition.” Anthropology News website, October 23, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1520