Nobody knows exactly when the first stories were told. I’m going to stick my neck out and pitch in at 250,000 BC, but only because it’s a nice round number and I don’t have a time machine. It feels like a fair guess. The “Out of Africa” theory of human evolution suggests our early homo sapiens ancestors may have been around 150,ooo or even 200,000 years ago, and I can’t believe their great-grandaddies hadn’t already cracked the whole language thing and started the tradition of regaling each other with tall tales about who brought down the biggest mammoth in the summer hunt.
Whichever year you pick, there can be no doubt storytelling has been around for a very long time. When it first started – and for a very long time thereafter – it must have been an entirely oral tradition. Fast forward a hundred millennia or so and storytelling started being supplemented by illustrations (cave paintings in the El Castillo cave in Northern Spain are currently thought to be the world’s oldest, dating from a little over 40,000 BC). Fast forward again – this time to around 3,000 BC – and you start tripping over stone tablets inscribed with the first Sumerian texts. The next big step came in AD 1450 when Johannes Gutenberg put metal letters all in a row and started mass-producing printed books.
Now we’ve reached the 21st century, it’s all change again. In the past couple of years, for the first time, ebook sales have started to outstrip print sales. But let’s not forget all the other interesting things that have been happening to storytelling in the meantime. Narrative cinema’s been pulling in the crowds for just over 100 years, while radio drama’s been going a little longer. As for theatre, well, in all likelihood that’s as old as storytelling itself. Are you trying to tell me our ancestors didn’t jazz up their mammoth stories with a little pantomime? Of course they did.
The newest kid on the storytelling block is the computer game, but let’s not forget that gaming as a concept existed long before we worked out how to throw electrons around fast enough to simulate reality. When it comes to games, narrative’s a little different in that the outcome is not necessarily fixed. This kind of interactivity is rapidly entering the mainstream, with gaming revenues now overtaking those from film.
The story of storytelling, then, is one of ever-accelerating change. In other words, it’s just like everything else. Recent developments – especially in digital media – have thrown the traditional publishing industry into turmoil. The important thing, however, is to weigh up this short-term panic against the huge span of time over which the business of storytelling has evolved. I’m not just talking about the 600-odd years since Gutenberg started churning out bibles. I’m talking about the last quarter of a million years.
The story of storytelling is not the story of the various media – voice, illustration, written word – through which the narratives are told. It’s the story of us. Storytelling is so embedded in us as human beings that, whatever medium we use to convey it, it’s the story itself that will endure.
So writers take heart. We don’t have to think of ourselves as writers any more. Writing is just one way of telling a tale, and the message is not the medium. When I break the news to you the days of the writer are numbered, don’t be sad.
Because the days of the storyteller will last forever.