A Tale to Remember
Dr Lynne Kelly can instantly recall the names of all the 412 birds in her home state of Victoria – and verbally deliver a taxonomic field guide to them all on demand.
She's not boasting; in fact, she doesn't think it's all that impressive, compared to the thousands of insect, plant and animal characteristics, complex geneaology and astronomy and geographical references typically memorised by traditional people from an oral culture.
Lynne has uncovered fascinating insights into the way humans use memory techniques to recall significant information – and says that ancient monuments, architecture and art were used by oral cultures the world over to recall vast swathes of data about their environments and their histories.
She believes many of these old monuments and structures are prehistoric memory systems designed to store vast amounts of knowledge. Her theory could explain Stonehenge, the 5,000 year old giant rock circle in England that's the subject of much archaeological head-scratching.
They could also explain the rationale for early Inca, native American and indigenous Australian sites: they may all be codified memory systems built by oral-based cultures.
Lynne's research has caused a stir world-wide, disrupting long-held theories across a range of disciplines, from archaeology to anthropology and from psychology to art and architecture.
These memory techniques are still in use; Lynne saw the same methods used by competitors at Australia's recent national Memory Championships.
Architects, indigenous scholars and anthropologists have been fascinated by her findings, which may even form the basis for a whole new field of research: archaeorality, or the way that non-writing cultures can amass vast amounts of knowledge using structures and artefacts as memory triggers.
Following the story trail
Lynne's exploration of memory began when she was researching different crocodile species for a science book - and discovered that traditional indigenous stories very accurately reflected their physiology, their characteristics and behaviour.
Such traditional stories could also be found in other cultures, too.
“The Navajo people classify more than 700 insects, listing their behaviours, their habitats – all used as metaphors within stories; I began to realise that traditional stories were being used almost like an oral encyclopaedia, if you like – passing on great volumes of knowledge."
Lynne decided to explore these stories in a PhD, and her supervisor alerted her to the concept of orality - how indigenous peoples preserved and communicated huge amounts of information down through generations – a field that has been explored for years.
But Lynne's work took this knowledge further.
“Linking these oral traditions to reality and to physical devices and to practical knowledge was a breakthrough for me," she explains. That information included holding entire field guides to every animal, every plant, and hundreds of kilometres of detailed navigation, all in their head."
Lynne realised that and the pilgrimage trails of Native Americans used similar methods to the Greek memory method of 'loci' – linking a memory to a location.
All non-literate cultures memorise huge amounts of information, not just spiritual and historic, but also practical information, classifying animals and plants, navigating vast areas without charts, recalling complex genealogies, laws about resources and rights agreed between groups; everything needed for long-term inter-generational survival.
How do they remember so much? Lynne says that song, dance, stories, mythology and physical memory aids in landscape and monument (such as the songlines used by Aboriginal people), are combined into an intricate knowledge system.
From story to book
Visiting Stonehenge was an epiphany for Kelly. She accompanied her husband Damian, a qualified archaeologist keen to explore the famous site – and walking around the giant stone circle, said she realised the huge stone circles were probably built by early Britons as part of their memory system, helping them recall vast detail about the natural world around them.
Lynne's research became truly interdisciplinary as she struggled to pull together a ground-breaking theory that crossed archaeology, sociology and anthropology.
After seven years of research into this fascinating area, Lynne completed her PhD, developing a theory that linked to the way groups managed the transition from nomadic to settler lifestyles.
“Most oral and prehistoric cultures were mobile and didn't store physical goods," she says.
“Concepts of wealth were associated with recalling knowledge - because their survival depended on it. It was the source of power within human groups. Monuments were essential to preserve information that was attached to vast landscapes. It wasn't settlement that started architecture: it was architecture that started settlement."
Memory Code and beyond
It's perhaps unsurprising that Lynne's work has evolved into a life of academic reflection. She was always a keen student, growing up in the Dandenongs in a very studious family. “My mother was a hermit, who had the most phenomenal library; and apart from her family, she saw no one – she had chronic depression. But she just lived in that library."
Lynne studied engineering at Monash, where she met her husband Damian, who studied accounting before becoming a librarian. The two have a daughter and grandchildren, and have been married for over 42 years.
Lynne returned to university to complete a master's degree in education and spent forty years as a high-school maths, physics and science teacher, writing books on the side.
“Our dinnertime conversation is endless questions and playing with ideas," she says.
Last year, Kelly turned her research into The Memory Code, a book aimed at the average reader, which takes these ancient techniques and shows how anyone can use them to recall big volumes of information.
Lynne used these techniques herself to learn bird names, but also to link familiar places with thousands of historical facts, from pre-history to recent times, filling parts of her house and much of her daily walk with her dog, through her home-town in country Victoria with imagined memory-prompts so she can quickly recall data.
“My home and my landscape are absolutely alive with stories I've constructed to trigger these memories," she says. “There's so much happening in this world around me now."
Lynne says that now, her entire landscape is alive. “This is what I've created in a couple of years of memory coding," she says.
Recently she has run workshops for others interested in learning these ancient techniques, and she has begun doing memory experiments – she already has 33 of these, which mimic some of the strategies used in indigenous memory systems.
“Some people call these sets of locations 'memory palaces,' but I like the term 'journey' because that describes exactly what it feels like," she says.