Update 2: Mnemonic devices in non literate cultures

The second wave of my memory research has been focused on investigating memory methods and overlying trends in a variety of historical civilizations. Originally, I planned to research a wide variety of cultures from varying times and places. However, I have realized it is also important to seek in-depth comprehension of the methods in a few societies that were most effective. After an initial overview of non-literate cultures, the Greeks and Romans, Asian cultures, and renaissance Europe, I decided to devote more time to a few non-literate people groups. Since they lacked a system of writing, they relied more heavily on memory, as it was the key to their survival. I researched many of their sophisticated mnemonic devices, and I will devote this blog post to explaining a few which were particularly interesting.

1. Australian Aboriginal Songlines: We almost never hear of the inhabitants of Australia before British colonization, but there was a rich native culture for thousands of years prior. These semi-nomadic hunter gatherers had to remember important information for survival, and pass it down to the next generation. To accomplish this, they “encoded” the information in the landscape. Chief elders in charge of knowledge preservation might make a pilgrimage to a series of sacred religious sites. Each new landmark had an associated song which conveyed religious information, the best technique for hunting a certain type of bird, a list of edible plants in the area, or any other useful knowledge. By systematically visiting each landmark regularly, elders could review necessary memories and make sure nothing was forgotten.

2. Luba Kingdom Lukasas: In what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Luba Kingdom resided long ago. This non-literate society used handheld wooden memory devices known as lukasas. A piece of wood was studded with shells, jewels, or other natural items. The memory aids were all unique. The elders (usually in charge of preserving memories accurately) could then associate each bit of information with a physical marker on the wood. Whenever they looked at a particular bead or shell, the encoded information would come to mind. Some lukasas may even have been used to store multiple sets of information. This allowed the Luba people to remember everything they needed without the risk of outsiders learning it as well: only the person who had associated information with each bead would make any sense out of a piece of decorated wood.

Non literate peoples used many other mnemonic devices to assist their memories. The volume of information they could recall at will is extremely impressive! Pre-writing cultures certainly had a much larger cultural emphasis on memory than we do currently. The impact of culture on the human capacity for memory will be further discussed in my final project.

As the summer rapidly comes to a close, I am entering the final stage of my research: compiling a list of factors that influence human memory. Based on these factors, I will present some suggestions on how we can augment our memory capacity in today’s society.

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