fire talks Bushmen
Researchers from the University of Utah analysed dozens of firelight conversations of Africa's Ju/'hoansi Bushmen - part of the Kalahari Bushmen Getty

Stories told over firelight have helped the development of human culture, according to a study by the University of Utah.

Researchers analysed dozens of daytime and firelight conversations of Africa's Ju/'hoansi Bushmen - part of the Kalahari Bushmen - and concluded the practice to tell stories sitting around the fire has reinforced cultural traditions, promoted harmony and equality and strengthened a sense of community among humans.

"There is something about fire in the middle of the darkness that bonds, mellows and also excites people. It's intimate," said Polly Wiessner, author of the study Embers Of Society: Firelight Talk Among The Ju/'hoansi Bushmen, published in the journal Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences.

"Night time around a fire is universally time for bonding, for telling social information, for entertaining, for a lot of shared emotions.

"We can't tell about the past from the Bushmen. But these people live from hunting and gathering. For 99% of our evolution, this is how our ancestors lived. What transpires during the fire-lit night hours by hunter-gatherers? It helps answer the question of what fire-lit space contributes to human life."

Wiessner explained that Ju/'hoansi Bushmen hold firelight gatherings most nights in groups of up to 15. Firelight stories deal with topics such as past hunts, fights over meat, marriage, premarital customs, murder, birth, interactions with other groups, disputes and extramarital affairs.

The study found daytime conversations were very different to firelight discussions.

"Day conversation has a lot to do with economic activities – working, getting food, what resources are where," Wiessner said. "It has a lot to do with social issues and controls: criticism, complaints and gripes."

"At night, people really let go, mellow out and seek entertainment. If there have been conflicts in the day, they overcome those and bond. Night conversation has more to do with stories, talking about the characteristics of people who are not present and who are in your broader networks, and thoughts about the spirit world and how it influences the human world. You have singing and dancing, too, which bonds groups."