Embers of society: Firelight talk among Bushmen

Table of Contents



Much attention has been focused on control of fire in human evolution and the impact of cooking on anatomy, social, and residential arrangements. However, little is known about what transpired when firelight extended the day, creating effective time for social activities that did not conflict with productive time for subsistence activities. Comparison of 174 day and nighttime conversations among the Ju/’hoan (!Kung) Bushmen of southern Africa, supplemented by 68 translated texts, suggests that day talk centers on economic matters and gossip to regulate social relations. Night activities steer away from tensions of the day to singing, dancing, religious ceremonies, and enthralling stories, often about known people. Such stories describe the workings of entire institutions in a small-scale society with little formal teaching. Night talk plays an important role in evoking higher orders of theory of mind via the imagination, conveying attributes of people in broad networks (virtual communities), and transmitting the “big picture” of cultural institutions that generate regularity of behavior, cooperation, and trust at the regional level. Findings from the Ju/’hoan are compared with other hunter-gatherer societies and related to the widespread human use of firelight for intimate conversation and our appetite for evening stories. The question is raised as to what happens when economically unproductive firelit time is turned to productive time by artificial lighting.




There are good reasons to expect that what transpires socially will differ between day and night, particularly with the capacity for language. Sufficiently bright firelight represses the production of melatonin and energizes (6, 28) at a time when little economically productive work can be done; time is ample. In hot seasons, the cool of the evening releases pent up energy; in cold seasons, people huddle together. Fireside gatherings are often, although not always, composed of people of mixed sexes and ages. The moon and starlit skies awaken imagination of the supernatural, as well as a sense of vulnerability to malevolent spirits, predators, and antagonists countered by security in numbers (29). Body language is dimmed by firelight and awareness of self and others is reduced. Facial expressions–flickering with the flames–are either softened, or in the case of fear or anguish, accentuated. Agendas of the day are dropped while small children fall asleep in the laps of kin. Whereas time structures interactions by day because of economic exigencies, by night social interactions structure time and often continue until relationships are right. Foragers make use of daytime efficiently and nighttime effectively.


PDF – PNAS-2014-Wiessner-14027-35





The firelight talk among the Bushmen, also known as the San people, is a traditional practice where community members gather around a fire in the evening to share stories, songs, and wisdom. This communal gathering serves several important purposes within San culture:

1. **Social Bonding**: The firelight talk provides an opportunity for community members to come together, strengthen social bonds, and reinforce their sense of belonging to the group. It fosters a sense of unity and shared identity among the San people.

2. **Cultural Transmission**: Through storytelling, the elders pass down traditional knowledge, myths, and legends to younger generations. These stories often contain important moral lessons, historical accounts, and practical wisdom that are integral to San culture and way of life.

3. **Entertainment and Recreation**: The firelight talk is a form of entertainment and recreation for the San people, offering a break from the daily routines of hunting, gathering, and other activities. It provides an opportunity for relaxation, enjoyment, and creative expression.

4. **Spiritual Connection**: The firelight talk may also have spiritual significance for the San people, as fire is often seen as a sacred element in many indigenous cultures. The flickering flames and warm glow of the fire create a conducive atmosphere for spiritual reflection, connection with ancestors, and communication with the divine.

5. **Community Decision-Making**: In addition to storytelling, the firelight talk may serve as a forum for discussing important community matters, resolving conflicts, and making collective decisions. It provides a platform for open dialogue, consensus-building, and conflict resolution within the community.

Overall, the firelight talk is a cherished tradition among the San people, serving as a vital social, cultural, and spiritual practice that strengthens community ties, preserves traditional knowledge, and fosters a sense of connection with one another and the natural world.

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