How story began (spoiler: women did it!) and why it’s still the most powerful way to connect
Here at Toucan, we love a good yarn. Specialising in film, events and communications means we’re always looking for stories that cross boundaries and give us that all important connection to humanity. The very first stories came about as a way to share knowledge, skills and experience but they soon became much, much more.
Cave paintings were the first recorded stories, and as a team of storytellers led by women here at Toucan, we were not surprised at all to see evidence emerge suggesting that women were largely responsible for many of the world’s oldest – and most famous – cave paintings. Analysis of the handprints from cave paintings in Spain and France has overturned centuries of assumptions that men were the artists, by revealing that around three quarters of the handprints are from women.
People had long assumed that because the cave paintings often depicted prey animals like bison, horses and reindeer, it was the hunter men who were the artists. But the more we find out about these ancient societies, the more we realise women were often the ones who hauled the hunted prey back to their base, and took a role in teaching children and acting as elders. Makes sense, then, that it would be women who painted the first storybooks on cave walls, to harness the power of stories to engage their audience just like we do today. There’s even some evidence emerging now that the legs of the animals in the paintings came to life by the light of the flickering cave fires, creating the illusion of movement. So women may well have been the first film directors too!
As hunter-gatherer communities began to evolve into more organised societies, storytelling traditions began to change too, away from paintings towards oral traditions, songs and fables. With the advent of agriculture, it was largely women who gathered at communal washtubs, cooking spaces and family groups to share these stories, which were passed on through many generations.
But it was with the advent of textiles that storytelling really exploded. Although history has often neglected tapestry and weaving as a form of storytelling, preferring to concentrate on the written word largely dominated by men, there is little doubt that the visual-spatial storytelling it embodies is the precursor to today’s most popular storytelling techniques. Just think about the language we use – textiles and text both come from the same word thread, meaning ‘to weave’, and well used phrases like ‘plot thread’, ‘spinning a yarn’ and ‘weaving a tale’ all speak to the links between cloth making and storytelling.
Here at Toucan, we’re proud to continue the work of all those ancient women who understood how powerful stories were for entertaining, informing and engaging their audience throughout history. Or should we say herstory?!
Writer – Esme Hall, March 2022