The technique of examining and interpreting signs, which may be called “reading,” can be traced back to hunting. Many animals track by smell, which communicates directly to the instincts. Does it smell bad? Stay away! Does it smell good? Follow it and eat it! When a wolf comes across the scent, it doesn’t wonder which direction to go, it doesn’t interpret the smell. If the wolf turns left and the yummy deer smell fades, it turns to the right where the smell is fresher.
Modern humans hunt with their eyes, yet have not lost the ability to track with their noses; a recent study at Berkeley showed that humans could follow a scent, if they put their noses to the ground. The experiment tested whether humans, wearing blindfolds, heavy oven mitts and knee pads, could follow a 30-foot chocolate-scented string which “traced a dogleg course through the grass” (Ritter). In fact, two-thirds of participants were able to follow the trail and all, with practice, improved, suggesting we can train our sense of smell.
While tracking by scent as a hunting tool has never been abandoned by modern humans, we have moved farther and farther away from direct olfactory clues. If not, perhaps we would still tell our stories with our urine, the way dogs do. The gradual shift from nose to eyes probably began when our distant ancestors started walking upright across the grasslands, removing their noses from the ground and all the concentrated smells there.
Of course sight also communicates directly with the instincts. See a grizzly bear? Run! (A very bad instinct, by the way. If a bear sees you running away, it will trigger the bear’s chase instinct. Just as a cat cannot resist a jiggling string, a bear cannot resist a fleeing animal, especially a juicy one like you. Better stand your ground, wave your arms and say, “Hey, bear! Hey, bear! I’m a human!” Your words will distinguish you. Note: this does not always work. If language fails, play dead.)
When visual information is not direct, however, when the animal hunting us or being hunted is nowhere in sight, Homo sapiens must interpret visual signs. Unlike hunting by scent, this is a two-step process. Humans look at the shape and determine which side of the print is front and which is back, reading the direction the animal has gone, as if the hoofprint were an arrow. A gesture like pointing is also read as a sign. Try pointing something out to your cat. It will look at your finger that you are jabbing in the air and not “read” the meaning that you want it to look in the direction which you are pointing. Reading the direction the tracks lead and reading a gesture are both instances of symbolic interpretation.
A skillful hunter also knows what kind of animal made the tracks and how big the animal is. In the article “Clues: Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes,” Carlo Ginzburg says that “hunters learned to reconstruct the appearance and movements of an unseen quarry through its track-prints in soft ground, snapped twigs, droppings, snagged hairs or feathers, smells, puddles, threads of saliva. They learned to sniff, to observe, to give meaning and context to the slightest trace” (Ginzburg).
Although Ginzburg mentions smells and sniffing, the primordial hunters he describes rely primarily on visual clues: snapped twigs, threads of saliva, and most tellingly track-prints. The word “track-prints” suggests the animal has printed, or written, the story of its passage on the land, which the hunter then carefully reads. The hunter’s were able to “leap from apparently insignificant facts, which could be observed, to a complex reality which–directly at least–could not. And these facts would be ordered by the observer in such a way as to provide a narrative sequence at its simplest, ‘someone passed this way'” (Ginzburg). In other words, in the process of reading the evidence, the “apparently insignificant facts,” the hunters were able to reconstruct the existence of an animal they had not seen and a simple narrative about its passage through the landscape. This suggests that hunters were the first story-tellers, the first writerly readers, the first readers to construct a story as they read it.
The shift from nose to eyes helped humans develop a faculty for symbolic thought, the interpretation and eventually the production of signs. If a story could be read from signs, then signs could tell a story: grunts, gestures, even words. The same connection is suggested in one Chinese tradition of the origins of writing. In his preface to the Shuowen jiezi, an early 2nd century Chinese dictionary, Xu Shen described the invention of the Chinese script: “The Yellow Emperor’s Court Recorder, Cang Jie, looked down and saw the marks left by the tracks of birds and animals. He realised that by distinguishing their patterns he was able to differentiate one thing from another. Thus he created the script” (Wood).
Although the birds had flown and the animals had fled, Cang Jie was able to tell what wildlife had visited the riverside since the last flood. Others skilled in hunting could have read the same information from the tracks. His flash of genius, however, was the realization that the marks in the mud, or ones like them, could be reproduced to represent the bird or animal. As court recorder, he would have been very interesting in keeping track of the game on the emperor’s lands, a sign of the lord’s wealth, but until script was developed how did he keep the tallies straight?
Of course all this is just one story of how writing came to be. There are many.
(Self-plagiarized from my paper “Even the Slightest, Most Trivial Thing, The Reading of Mysteries and the Mystery of Reading,” which you could find if I were going to self-promote, and I won’t, under my notes in Facebook or on demand.)
Ginzburg, Carlo. “Clues: Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes.” The Sign of Three: Dupin, Holmes, Peirce. Eds. Umberto Eco & Thomas A. Sebeok. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983. Print.
Ritter, Malcolm. “Humans Show Unexpected Odor-Tracking Ability.” Seattle Times 18 December 2006: n. pag. Web. 1 December 2009.