Skilled Agta storytellers are more likely to receive gifts, and they’re not only more desirable as living companions—but also as mates. On average, they have 0.5 more children than their peers. That’s a crucial result. Stories might help to knit communities together, but evolution doesn’t operate for the good of the group. If storytelling is truly an adaptation, as Migliano suggests, it has to benefit individuals who are good at it—and it clearly does.
“It’s often said that telling stories, and other cultural practices such as singing and dancing, help group cooperation, but real-world tests of this idea are not common,” says Michael Chwe, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies human cooperation. “The team’s attempt to do this is admirable.”
Still, it’s hard to know if it’s the specific act of storytelling that matters. As others have noted, “creativity comes with its own suite of personality traits, which may make [people] more attractive sexual partners,” says Lisa Zunshine, an English professor at the University of Kentucky.
And all of Migliano’s results hinge on the Agta accurately naming the best storytellers in their midst. Did they? Could they just have named people they were close to, or venerated celebrities who sprang readily to mind? Wouldn’t that explain both the fecundity and desirability of these supposed storytelling Jedi? Migliano thinks not. If the survey had been a mere popularity contest, the Agta should have also nominated the same people as exceptional hunters, gatherers, child minders, and so on. They didn’t. They singled out particular people for particular skills, including storytelling.
“It suggests that hunter-gatherers track this ability and perceive it as beneficial,” says Michelle Scalise Sugiyama from the University of Oregon, who has studied the origins of storytelling. Other societies, like the Tsimane of Bolivia, do the same, which “indicates that storytelling contributes something of adaptive value to human life.” That something might well be the reinforcement of norms and ethics. “As attested by the universality of the trickster figure, telling stories about rule breakers who get caught and punished is an effective means of persuading individuals to conform to group norms,” Scalise Sugiyama adds.
But “stories also contain valuable cultural knowledge, and accomplished storytellers are repositories of this knowledge,” she notes. Hunter-gatherers use their tales to pass down information about food, weather, and more—and often in ways that outsiders can miss.
For example, Andamanese people have a story about two quarreling weather gods, who eventually split up their wind-creating duties. You could see that as a story about avoiding conflict, or as a way of encoding information about the strong winds that buffet the Andaman Islands. A similar creation story talks about a monitor lizard that went into the jungle to hunt pigs, got stuck in a tree, and was helped down by a civet cat (whom it married). On the face of it, that’s a story of cooperation between the sexes. But Scalise Sugiyama notes that it also encodes information about the habitat, diet, and range overlaps between the local lizards, pigs, and civets. “These profiles may aid in the prediction of animal behavior, which is critical to locating, tracking, and stalking game,” she says.