Ancient Indigenous Memory Systems

By Cassandra Sheppard on Thursday October 6th, 2016

Using Ancient Techniques to Train Modern Brains

How much degradation of old people’s minds could be linked to the fact that we isolate them from their old songs, dances and stories?

The human brain has the natural ability to remember thousands of facts and huge swathes of information, by adopting the technique of orality, which the ancients used to construct their entire knowledge systems.

In her work with Australian Indigenous elders, Honorary Research Associate at LaTrobe University , science writer and author of The Memory Code, Lynne Kelly, has unlocked the secrets of Aboriginal Songlines, Stonehenge, Easter Island and ancient monuments the world over.

Lynne Kelly The Memory CodeLynne Kelly, author of The Memory Code (Credit: Courtesy Damian Kelly)

The places, songs, dances, art, stories and rituals connected to the Aboriginal Songlines contain entire knowledge systems that, today, would be the equivalent to universities. They are sophisticated memory systems that ensured survival, brought the land alive and made it sacred ground.

This discovery is the key to understanding the purpose of the Neolithic stone circles of Britain and Europe, the ancient Pueblo buildings in New Mexico and other prehistoric stone monuments across the world. We can still use these techniques today to train our own memories.

Upon asking how the Elders “…could remember so much stuff without writing anything down,” Lynne developed this body of work that has completely transformed her life. “When you don’t have literacy, you have orality,” she said.

Stories are key to understanding Neolithic structuresStories are key to understanding Neolithic structures (Credit: Courtesy Damian Kelly)

Thousands of Years of Information

People could remember countless details about the natural and social world around them, yet they were non-literate. In their nomadic, oral traditions they needed to be able to store knowledge and information somewhere. Lynne’s work has revealed that this was the purpose of Songlines. “The Songlines are heavily imbued with the minutely detailed, practical information necessary for survival and for maintaining cultural integrity,” said Lynne Kelly.

They contain thousands of years of collated information about plants, animals, landscape, weather, star systems, navigation, ethics and lore, resource use rights, genealogy and marriage rules. It is the vast and complex intellectual property they contain that makes Songlines and the landscapes they traverse sacred to Indigenous people.

Painting of Aboriginal SonglinesPainting of Aboriginal Songlines

Associating Story with Place

Other scientific research has proven that the human brain has an inner GPS system that locates information in places. It is why you can remember how to get from place to place and remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard significant news. Ancient oral cultures knew that the brain easily associates physical place with remembering information.

In a Songline, each location in a landscape has attached to it an instruction about the relevant song, dance, story, character or all of those. In those songs and stories is all the information about a particular thing that people needed to remember, as well as the rights and responsibilities attached to that information. It is the practical information needed for survival.

Aboriginal oral traditionAboriginal oral tradition

Making Stories Memorable

The creative delivery of the information makes it even more memorable and fun. “The stories and songs can be quite nonsensical, making them even easier to remember. It was about being able to remember, and that’s why Indigenous stories and myths can often seem quite fantastical,” said Kelly.

Depending on the nature of the information it is necessary to repeat it regularly in the form of ceremonies and rituals (meaning a repeated act) to ensure it is accurately remembered. Initiation created different levels of access to the knowledge as a way of keeping the information accurate. There were layers and layers and layers – to avoid the Chinese whisper effect.

Every songline contains different stories and dancesEvery songline contains different stories and dances

More than one piece of information can be attached to a place and the brain naturally has the ability to sift through and bring up what is needed. The landscape is literally alive with knowledge. It is a system that makes coming together regularly to sing, dance and tell stories a matter of life and death.

Songlines that have been recorded along the Queensland coast and in Victoria contain accurate geographical data that is at least 7,000 years old – a true indication of how effective this method of remembering is.

Indigenous Memory Systems Around the World

Indigenous cultures around the world use these systems. The Navajo in America are able to recall the details of 701 species of insect to three levels of classification. In the American south west, the pueblo culture which is intact, have maintained at least seven varieties of corn of different colour and variety for hundreds of years.

The Navajo has kept many of their stories in tactThe Navajo continue to pass their stories on through the generations

“If you plant a monoculture in a harsh environment and things go wrong, the people will die, because they depend on it. If you read the pueblo accounts you get stories of the corn mothers and the cord maidens who all wear a different colour… the implications are that the rules for the corn are embedded in them. They are to protect the variety, to optimise survival,” said Kelly.

Changing the Way we Store Knowledge

Once cultures settled into an agrarian lifestyle they needed to store their knowledge somewhere. They needed hooks for their information and they needed ceremonial performance space. The stones at Stonehenge, the elaborate buildings of New Mexico and the statues at Easter Island all have innumerable distinguishing features onto which information hooks could be placed. And the ceremonial spaces around them would have been used to perform the associated songs, dances and rituals to ensure the knowledge formerly kept in the landscape was not lost.

Ancient structures on Easter IslandAncient structures on Easter Island (Credit: Courtesy Ian Rowland)

Non-literate cultures also used memory boards. The West Africans use a lukasa, while the Aboriginal Australians had a tjuringa. It’s a piece of wood or art onto which individual identifiable features are added in order to remember a set of knowledge.

The Prevalence of Ancient Memory Boards

Kelly explained, “Mysterious carved stone balls from the Scottish Neolithic period that have been found and no one knows what they are for. I showed a photo of one to an Aboriginal Elder and he said – Oh they do their tjuringa on these balls!

“No one had ever asked an Elder what these objects might be for! So you’ve also got the Stonehenge chalk paths decorated with enigmatic inscriptions, it’s the same concept as an Aboriginal tjuringa. It fits the pattern absolutely.

No one had ever asked an Elder what these objects might be forNo one had ever asked an Elder what these objects might be for

“Until you’ve tried these methods, it’s impossible to understand. On my memory board I’ve encoded the more than 400 birds of Victoria. I would never have believed I could do that. Now I will go up to the birds of the whole of Australia. It’s extraordinarily strong. I can’t see any bird out there without seeing that bird’s location on my board. And that is an incredibly precious object to me,” she said.

Contemporary Applications

When I asked Lynne about contemporary application for these systems she said, “This work has invaluable application in contemporary life. It links directly to how our brains naturally work. For example in Alzheimer’s – you can take people to places and they can sing, and remember things off the landscape. How much degradation of old people’s minds could be linked to the fact that we isolate them from their old songs, dances and stories?”

Alzheimer patient remembering old musicAlzheimer patient remembering old music

“Look at children,” she said. “Singing, dancing, art are natural ways they express themselves. That is included as a part of their school curriculum, but then when it is time to learn maths or science we shut that part of their brains down. Why? Knowledge and remembering arises through narrative, music, and dance. No one is saying there is anything wrong with what we are doing – just that this approach can enhance what we’re doing.”

Lynne Kelly regards one of the most important issues around her discovery to be the Indigenous intellectual property. “I think what has been lost out of all of this is the practical intellect, the intellectual property. Development going ahead on Indigenous sacred sites is effectively the same as burning down a university. It is the intellect that we westerners value so highly and it is there. We just couldn’t see it,” she said.

Artist impression of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco CanyoArtist impression of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyo

Kelly hopes that this work has helped a bit:

It can be brought back; the thing is if it is not respected by the youth it is very hard for the elders to get them. It is hard work. They study every bit as hard as we do. It is not just some chat while out on the gather and hunt. It is studying and learning in systematic ways through initiation. You can’t teach and Songlines if you can’t sing a Songline.

Featured Image: Artist Unknown

How do you feel about this article? Join the conversation.

Words By Cassandra Sheppard

Passionate community development worker who has lived and worked in Asia and Africa and created a thriving grass roots community centre in Democratic Republic of Congo.




An Indigenous Approach To Healing Trauma

Can Indigenous and Modern Medicine work together?

Subscribe to UPLIFT

UPLIFT is dedicated to telling the new story of inspired co-creation.

Get free updates and news about UPLIFT events and films.

How will my data be used?



Lynne Kelly (2016) The Memory Code, Allen & Unwin


One Response to Ancient Indigenous Memory Systems

  1. So informative.feels like I allready knew those things but had to read this article to remember them .if that makes any sense. Thank you.

Leave a reply