A Not-So-Brief History of Time: Meme Archaeology

Everybody knows what a meme is and can give examples of one, but did you know there’s actually a scholarly definition for it? In 1976, a meme was defined as something that “conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation”—in other words, it’s a piece of cultural information that gets passed on, sort of like a more-benign form of a virus.

The Internet Age has widely expanded the form and remixability of memes. For a current example, take Gru’s plan from Despicable Me. In the movie, Gru has an easel with paper on it detailing his nefarious scheme, but, as his expression in the final panel shows, the third and final page of the presentation is not what he expected due to his adopted children messing with it. This has been repurposed into a generic template, most often—but not always—seen with the typical setup-setup-punchline format, repeating whatever an individual puts on the third card. Here are a few examples.

A century ago, a meme would have taken a different form. Take, for example, folk music, which encompasses a wide range of genres. “Haul the Woodpile Down,” for instance, is an old sea chanty sung by sailors to help pass the time and get work done. “Green Grow the Rushes, O” is an old religious song that appears to represent a mixture of various religious philosophies, making it a prime example of a vintage meme, and that is to this day sung as a Christmas carol or referred to every time someone plays Fables of the Reconstruction. There has, again, been much scholarly ink spilled on these sorts of memes: The Roud Folk Song Index catalogs variations on American folk songs of the past few centuries, and more further afield, the morbid tradition of child ballads is well-attested from England. All of these songs were passed from person to person, from social circle to social circle, changing as they went.

There’s a lot of turnover in the meme economy nowadays, a function of the impact that telecommunications and computers have had upon society. For instance, take the Harlem Shake. If you hadn’t thought about it for a while before it was mentioned here, you’re not alone. It had a brief burst of activity, then essentially died. But memes haven’t always been subject to this sort of turbidity. What if memes could stick around through longer periods of time—thousands-of-years-long periods of time?

This is the driving motivation behind the idea of folk memory, which involves the preservation of ideas via myth and folklore. The term itself typically implies that there is some sort of factual truth behind whatever is being passed down, though it is here being expanded somewhat to include mythological motifs and concepts more generally regardless of their basis in fact or fiction. Think of folk memory as sort of an offline imageboard for information with cultural import, to bring it into more modern terms. (An imageboard is an online database where anyone can view and post information in graphical form: Derpibooru is one example geared towards My Little Pony fans, and KnowYourMeme’s image repository serves a similar function.)

The modern memetic complex is analogous to folk memory, just updated in form. In many cases, memes at least indirectly refer to some event or concept of significance. It is a way of recording history, a modern folklore even. If I were to say, “Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams,” you’d likely know what I was referring to—people lampooning conspiracy theories about 9/11. “Make America great again” is, of course, the 2016 campaign slogan of now-President Donald Trump and has been repeated and repeatedly skewered since its coinage. If I were to mention Epic Sax Guy, I would be referring to a moment from a historical event in 2010, namely that year’s Eurovision Song Contest. If I were to say, “Perfectly balanced, as all things should be,” you would, I hope, know that I refer to Avengers: Infinity War, a cultural mega-phenomenon released in 2018.

All of the memes in the previous paragraph are of recent vintage; however, it’s easy to pick out some older examples. One that springs to mind is the fable of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree—it never actually happened, but the tale is often repeated and became a key piece of modern American folklore nonetheless. Another old American meme is sic semper tyrannis, the words John Wilkes Booth shouted after assassinating Abraham Lincoln. Even if you don’t speak Latin, if you’re American, you likely know that this means “thus always to tyrants” or have at least passing familiarity with the phrase.

Language is chock-full of this sort of thing. If you’ve ever wondered where the term “dark horse” comes from, it was first used in a nineteenth-century novel, The Young Duke. The term “blue moon” comes from a poem from the sixteenth century. In fact, going by the 1976 definition, language in general is an assortment of memes organized in a meaningful fashion (words have to be repeated to gain acceptance, after all). Given that language, as an entity, is thousands of years old, this suggests another question: Can we trace other memes back that far?

Yuri E. Berezkin seems to think so, going on at length about potential folkloric links between the Old and New Worlds. This is significant because, excepting the Inuit, there is no facially-obvious connection between the cultures of the Asia-Africa-Europe triad and the Americas. Deeper digging reveals some tantalizing tidbits, however, hinting at a common background for Siberian and North American peoples. One possible folk memory is in the constellations. In the northern half of North America, it is common for the Big Dipper to be identified as a wounded being, most often an animal or a fisherman. The meme of stars-as-wounded-figure, albeit dealing with the constellation Orion, is also attested from the Tangut and Chukchi peoples of Arctic Asia. The similarities in these myths are intriguing given the great distances and time separations involved between these groups—if they had no common ancestry or contact, why would they have such similar stories about the stars? These common narrative traditions are suggestive of a singular origin long, long ago.

Another common North American meme is the story of the earth-diver. In this meme, passed from person to person and generation to generation, a guy on a raft has survived a great flood. The man then dispatches some animals to prove that there is a bottom to the waters, with the added detail in many accounts that it is typically a muskrat who finds it first. The idea of the earth-diver is known across various pockets of North America that are home to large numbers of diverse peoples—Na-Dené (including Athabaskans), IroquoianAlgonquian, and Siouan, among others—many of whom are not prima facie related groups. The consistency of the myths between these disparate groups makes uncommon descent seem unlikely. Thus, one may infer that the meme of the earth-diver is an ancient and pervasive one. Whether based on truth or the lore of an ancient people group lost to memory, it is still the case that the meme has survived and spread, diffusing through generations and thousands of miles.

Simple memes may not have a common origin. A story of, say, “X kills Y” is pretty basic and bare-bones, and anybody could come up with it. But add in more details, and it becomes less likely that a given thought had independent discovery. Take the example of the Big Dipper, for instance. It is curious how the thought of a wounded being managed to survive along both continents, or even how they remained consistent within each continent (Orion for Asia, the Big Dipper for North America). Even people in Europe can’t agree on what the Big Dipper is—in Britain, it’s a plow, or, if you’re in the Netherlands, it’s a saucepan, while other Europeans see it as a wagon—and they have a provable common ancestry. Or consider the earth-diver, with its precise details, including the muskrat. The fact that there are multiple such tales is an additional factor in suggesting a common source for these memes.

Memes aren’t just pictures with text imposed over them in the Impact font, as they often are nowadays. Memes appear to be able to transport concepts and information across temporal distances of millennia. Consider the memes mentioned above, present as they are among people groups on two continents and who are separated by hundreds or thousands of miles. They suggest some sort of unified origin for the memes, implying that the groups that have them are related. Who knew that something as simple as a meme could function as a sort of conceptual archaeology you can use to peer back through the layers of time?