The Landscape of History… in Memes

How can history be discovered from memes and geography? (A meme can be defined as something that “conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.” A picture with something witty pasted over it in Impact font or the phrase “Perfectly balanced, as all things should be” are modern flavors of memes, but the definition here expands it to any bit of information that can be transmitted culturally, kind of like an informational virus.) You might be surprised to find out that you can find at least some information about past events from memes about land and other geologic features. Indo-European culture is rife with this sort of phenomenon, enabling one to glean information on the past from present cultural holdovers. For instance, we can turn to place names, like Beverley or Ulvethwait, which have been used to identify ancient distributions of the beaver and wolf populations in England. Place names have also been used to locate now-drained lakes in Central Europe.

However, history through folk memory is not limited to the West. Again, cultural information about land and geography is an instructive source. This is particularly well-demonstrated in the cultural memory of the Athabaskan peoples in Canada, Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, and Western United States. For these groups specifically, place names and the naming methods thereof appear to be a deep-rooted system, something that James Kari terms the “Athabascan [sic] territorial ethos.” Further, this ethos is intertwined with historical narratives.

Toponyms, or place names, in Athabaskan languages tend to be bluntly descriptive (e.g. Ts’inahwet’aaden, ‘linear object that protrudes back out,’ or Tahwghi’aayi, ‘one that extends into water’). Not only are the name formats consistent across Athabaskan languages, of which Alaska alone has at least a dozen, but notably, the name for a specific location is very often identical in structure and meaning across these languages. In addition, it is generally the case that toponymic meanings are retained even when the territory held by a specific Athabaskan subgroup changes—that is to say, the new controllers retain the information encoded in the original name. Athabaskan traditions carry on this geographic history all the way back from when the names were given.

Kari further reports that long-distance travel and routes associated with Athabaskan history are, by all appearances, part of their core historical tradition, and describes what he terms “elite travel narratives,” which focus heavily on toponyms. In an elite travel narrative, we receive a sort of catalogue of the important locations along a specific route, frequently peppered with statements about an individual’s or group’s exploits at those locations, highlighting the interplay between names and events.

We may be able to stretch the history of similar memes even further back in time and afield in location: The Proto-Athabaskan word for ‘river, sandbar’ (*deːʂ or *deːʐéʔ, both of which were used for many toponyms) is a possible cognate—that is, it shares a common source—with the word for ‘river’ (*dʲēːs) in a group of Asian languages called Yeniseian. Thus, the memes just described would indicate transmission from that source in the distant past across two continents.

Somewhat further afield, in Australia, we can recover fragments of the history of almost the entire continent from the depths of cultural memory via memes relating to geography. This is, perhaps, not surprising, as indigenous Australians are descended from a common population group. However, Australian folk memory has several interesting characteristics, including a broad-strokes analog to the Athabaskan territorial ethos.

As Frank Pool wrote, “sedentary nomadism, wandering from place to place in a given territory” is the nature of life down under; compare this to the itinerant patterns of the Athabaskans mentioned above. Where the Athabaskans had toponyms and elite travel narratives, Australians have “songlines,” which appear to be sort of a hybrid of the two. By singing the song associated with the desired route of travel, one is able to orient themselves geographically across the continent. These songlines did not originate in a vacuum—someone had to have traveled the route first, and in any event the information has to be passed on in order to be recoverable. In this way, songlines have a sort of historical information encoded within them, possibly stretching back millennia.

It is additionally reported that some Australian oral histories may explicitly refer to events from the distant past, such as sea-level increases following the Ice Age and the seeding of palm trees in the Australian interior. Modern research suggests that these accounts have a basis in actual events, and for us to have them today, the narratives had to have been passed on. Further, in Australia, as with the Athabaskans, these pieces of information can be present across wide-ranging areas, sometimes covering most of the continent. It is therefore likely that there is at least some historical information present within these narratives, covering things that happened ages ago, passed down from an original source.

How can these oral histories retain accuracy across these timespans? Australian storytelling protocol is infused with a practice described as “cross-generational cross-checking,” in which multiple generations are present for the passing on of a piece of the oral tradition. This has a major effect on the coherence of the greater Australian mythological scene. Consider how we in the West have a disdain for considering oral histories to be true because of the way typical conversations work—this is exemplified in the game “telephone,” in which a message is passed along a chain of people until it is revealed, often in impenetrably mangled form, at the end. Cross-generational cross-checking, on the other hand, strengthens the integrity of the information being passed on by having multiple listeners from various walks of life present for its transmission and allowing them to correct any errors or omissions, like a Bitcoin network of oral narratives. This, in turn, helps to preserve the information from the narrative, increasing the odds of its legitimacy as it is passed from generation to generation.

The world over, memes involving memories about physical geography confer information, implicitly or otherwise, about history. Historical accounts and place names can provide important and salient clues about the background and past events related to those places and their inhabitants. What might such memes about your own hometown say about its history?