Stone age cinemas and the six evolutionary functions of story

A growing body of research suggests storytelling is an evolutionary adaptation that performs at least six species-level functions.

On 8 September 1940, 18-year-old Marcel Ravidat was walking in woods near Lascaux in south-west France when his dog Robot discovered a large hole left by an uprooted tree. Knowing of a local story about a secret tunnel, Marcel raced to find his friends Jacques, Georges and Simon. The boys returned to the spot with rope and an oil lantern. They dragged away earth and roots and clambered down the narrow shaft emerging into a giant chamber. As the light from their lamp flickered, stags, bison and horses came to life on the cave walls tossing their heads and flicking their tails.

The boys had made one of the most extraordinary archaeological discoveries of all time. The cave was a Stone Age cinema – an early example of people bringing stories to life with moving images. On one wall, a sequence of horses morphs into a single galloping horse in lamp light. The effect seems to have been intentional since engraved discs of bone that produce flipbook-style animations when spun on string were found on the cave floor along with around 100 small stone lamps.

Another wall shows a wounded bison with its guts spilling out, a woolly rhinoceros, a bird on what might be a stick and a man with what might be an erection. A story is unfolding but – without the human narrator – it’s anyone’s guess what it is.


Laura Peek

Laura is the founder of StoryCode and a former Staff News Reporter at The Times and The Daily Mail. She has also written for The Guardian.

Wednesday, 26 October 2022

Photos: Lascaux cave art illustration © Hannah Bailey from the book When We Became Human published by Words and Pictures (Quarto Group)
Video: Cave art animations by Renaud Chabrier based on images from Chauvet, Lascaux and Niaux by Marc Azéma / Parc de L'Ariège and images from San and Elands by Luc Ronat / CNRS Images

Image 1: from the left, teacher Léon Laval, Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal and archaeologist Henri Breuil. Image 2: Laval, Marsal, Ravidat and Georges Agniel. ©CNP – SPL Lascaux International Exhibition and the Laval family; colourized by Jordan J Lloyd at Dynamichrome

Stories exist in every human community, including remote tribes, and in every period of human history. We are a storytelling species but why? Why did our ancestors expend valuable energy sharing stories and why do we still do so today?

Anthropologists at University College London recently found the first real-world evidence that storytelling is an evolutionary adaptation. They studied the Agta people – a group of hunter-gatherers in the Philippines – and found groups with skilled storytellers worked together more effectively. They also discovered the best storytellers had greater reproductive success than the best hunters suggesting nature selects for storytelling.

“Our research suggest storytelling performs an important adaptive function in human societies,” Dr Daniel Smith told StoryCode. “It’s a way of broadcasting social norms, coordinating behaviour and promoting cooperation. It communicates the rules of the tribe and the penalties for breaking them. This helps people work together without conflict to achieve a common goal.”

The study is the latest in a growing body of research that suggests storytelling performs at least six evolutionary functions:–


There is a psychology experiment from the 1950s in which people are shown two triangles and a circle moving round a screen. Most see the shapes as characters in an unfolding story: some see a love triangle; others a conflict between children or animals. The experiment shows people think in stories. The brain takes in data points and creates a story to join the dots. Story is the brain’s sense-making mechanism.

We could wake up each morning and contemplate our smallness in an infinite universe but that would result in overwhelm and paralysis so we set goals and embark on journeys to achieve them. Each journey is a story that narrows the world to a manageable scale providing purpose and meaning and protecting us from the existential abyss. If you ever wondered about the meaning of life: it’s story.

We share stories to connect with others. Trust between people is based on the exchange of stories: we have to know something about someone to trust them. One measure of intimacy is the number and nature of stories shared. When someone tells a story, we walk in their shoes and acquire insight into their motives and perspectives. Our brain waves synchronise with theirs activating empathy, fostering understanding and deepening connection.

Story is the glue that holds human groups together. The ability to unite around a collective story enabled small tribes to grow into large tribes and eventually into today’s globalised society, suggests the historian Yuval Noah Harari. Nations, cities and companies are stories that unite people around common values and goals and a cultural crisis occurs when one of these unifying stories runs out or falls apart.

Thinkers since Aristotle have observed a universal pattern underlying enduring stories. This pattern is the source code of story – story DNA – and it involves change. Life throws down a gauntlet challenging the hero to embark on an adventure. Wary of change, the hero hesitates then commits to the quest enduring trials before emerging transformed. Stories explore the conflict between our need for change and our fear of change helping us evolve.


Stories provide respite from life’s troubles enhancing resilience. As the hero confronts challenges of mounting difficulty culminating in the story’s climax, the rising tension grips us purging pent-up emotions and activating feel-good chemicals when it is released. The Greeks called this catharsis which means cleansing or renewal. Good stories balance our emotions, increase our insight and help us survive life.

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