The Memory Code
, by Australian author Lynne Kelly, is an astounding transformative analysis of cultural evolution, presenting a startling and compelling scientific hypothesis about the central role of memory in non-literate societies, with broad implications for widely held views about human history. The subtitle is "The traditional Aboriginal memory technique that unlocks the secrets of Stonehenge, Easter Island and ancient monuments the world over."
The human brain achieved its current capacity before our ancestors migrated out of Africa around a hundred thousand years ago. Only over the last few thousand years have the modern innovations of settled agriculture, use of metal and recording of information in writing evolved. What did people do with those big brains for all that long time? The Memory Code
explains how before writing was invented, people retained knowledge by specific memory techniques, involving ritual repetition of songs that held important information. These songs and stories were only told to initiates, and used specific mnemonic methods to ensure accurate and stable transmission.
A small group can more effectively keep knowledge stable because when stories are shared widely they are more easily changed. This method of initiatic knowledge is universal across non-literate cultures. Most importantly, the high esteem provided by knowledge in the more egalitarian tribal cultures of the stone age made the holding of knowledge a main source of social standing.
Australian Aboriginal songlines are a primary living example of the encoding of traditional knowledge in song. Lynne Kelly explains in The Memory Code
that Indigenous Australian cultures use the universal mnemonic method of associating a specific memory with a physical location, which serves as a trigger to enable initiates to remember accurately and fully. It appears that our brains are wired to use this associative memory technique. It is like the well-known and remarkably effective method of imagining rooms in a house, and mentally placing things in the room, and then using a mental walk through the house as a way to ensure all the ‘stored’ facts are remembered.
Most interestingly, Kelly suggests that the broad historical process of transition from stone to metal technology involved a shift in the sociology of power, based on the changing role of memory. Older egalitarian social structures based power on knowledge. This social framework gradually gave way to new more hierarchical structures based on coercion, as powerful individuals found they could control society using weapons and wealth. This transition is marked in archaeology by the gradual increase of appearance of tombs of powerful individuals, as nomadic stone and wood-based cultures evolved into settled agrarian societies using metal. The result of this evolutionary transition in human life is that the old use of knowledge for power became less important to rulers of settled societies, and the old initiation systems gradually fell into disuse.
This change took thousands of years, and traces of the old ways still exist today. Neolithic structures such as Stonehenge and Avebury in England, Newgrange in Ireland, the Nazca Lines in Peru, the statues of Easter Island, and many other similar mysterious places, present fascinating support for this memory hypothesis. Kelly argues these mysterious structures were primarily built and used as mnemonic devices to enable the retention of old knowledge, for example by walking a path of poles. As people shifted from a nomadic hunter-gatherer economy into settled agriculture, they no longer walked the old songlines that connected locations in their territory. They still wanted to keep the old knowledge that was encoded in the locations along their familiar routes, and therefore they built sites where the encoded traditions could be remembered in ritual ceremony. Many features of these sites, such as circles of poles, flat-bottomed ditches and secret chambers corroborate this new suggestion about their purpose as locations to cultivate a society’s memory code.
What I found most interesting of all in The Memory Code
is a topic that Lynne Kelly does not even mention. Her hypothesis of a slow shift from brains to weapons as the main source of social power is an intensely illuminating idea. Against my own interests, I found myself thinking about how very well it explains the emergence of Christianity, and the old myth of a descent from a golden age to an iron age. This myth of descent is found in the Vedic story of the Yuga cycle from India, in the Bible story of the fall from grace into corruption, and in mythology from Greece and Rome. These societies experienced a shift in power from brains to weapons. The older methods of social organisation by oral transmission of knowledge continued alongside the emerging methods, although with less status.
The possibility that Kelly’s hypothesis raises is that the old ways operated at a much bigger scale and for far longer than our written records indicate, as they were maintained by secret mystery societies open to initiates. We have a lot of information about the existence of secret mystery societies in the ancient world, but have almost no verifiable knowledge about them. They relied on oral secrecy, mouth to ear, a vulnerable transmission medium that is easily cut by swords when an empire is determined to suppress rival sources of power.
A key theme relevant to this big historical arc of the evolution of religion is Kelly’s observation that the public versions of myths are effectively just children’s stories, simplified to leave out key secret information reserved for initiates. This initiatic practice is universal in non-literate culture. So what does that say about the Bible and Christianity?
Jesus tells us in the Gospels that the mysteries of the kingdom are reserved for initiates, while everything told to the general public is parable. If this saying refers to the type of memory code that Kelly describes, it has explosive implications for the traditional literal understanding of the Gospels. If rather than telling literal history, they were written as parables, and as memory joggers for initiates, then their real meaning is symbolic.
Far from diminishing the value of the Bible, such an interpretation could help us to see it as a way to look ‘through a glass darkly’, to use Saint Paul’s phrase, as a prism to connect to its lost past sources, to reconstruct the hidden meaning concealed within the text, a hidden meaning with continuity going back to an older culture of esteem for knowledge.
This hypothesis inverts the Christian belief that ancient writers who claimed hidden meaning in the Bible, known as Gnostics, were a late offshoot from an orthodox literal tradition. Rather, the anthropological evidence of The Memory Code
indicates that the most plausible explanation of Christian origins is that the story of Jesus Christ encodes much older symbolic meaningful knowledge. As the faith was taken over by the owners of weapons and wealth, with the victories of the Roman Empire, these older traditions were suppressed, ignored, denied and forgotten.
In the modern world, humans seem almost to be evolving into cyborgs, completely reliant on smartphone technology for memory. The use of traditional memory methods was more suited to a simpler smaller society. Kelly’s explanation of the universal human capacity of memory to store and transmit large quantities of important information over many generations helps to revise common assumptions about our past. The Memory Code
also serves a critically valuable function of promoting respect for indigenous culture, and for the value of hidden encoded knowledge, whose fugitive traces we can still find in our diverse living mythological traditions.
20 December 2017