Are Unsolved Mysteries Really Mysteries? The Answers May Be Found in Oral Histories

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,


I have been sick for the last few weeks and have been passing the time by reading everything that I can get my hands on. One of those things is National Geographic's 100 Greatest Mysteries Revealed, which is filled with intriguing tidbits about ancient civilizations (will we ever find El Dorado?), myth (where is the holy grail?), and more.

While fascinating, this list has gotten me wondering — are these "unsolved" mysteries really mysteries, or are we just not listening to the people who know the answers? 

Let me explain... 

When I was in University, I took a class called The History of Africa from an extremely eccentric professor who had recently returned to Canada after spending a year with a tribe in Zimbabwe. One of the things that he was doing there was recording the oral history of the tribe that had been passed down from person to person for hundreds of years. Because the tribe was fairly isolated, they did not trust outsiders, and it had taken him months to even get any sort of conversation going with them.   

Oral history has long been considered to be unreliable by historians, and so is an inaccurate source of information in the western world. This means that people who transmit knowledge through stories and song (which is a VERY large portion of the world's population) are not accounted for in written history.That is A LOT of information that can not be Googled or found in textbooks, and can potentially be lost forever if a group dies out, or is assimilated into western culture.

If you don't believe that oral histories are important or relevant, think of your own family. The stories that you heard from you grandparents, or even your parents are stories that you will tell your own children, or people that you know. They may not solve any mysteries, but they give you a sense of place in the world and help you to understand where you came from.

Now imagine that those histories transmitted thousands of years of knowledge, and that is the knowledge that is potentially locked away in the minds of aboriginal peoples all over the globe. 

Why don't scientists and archeologists just ask?  

Great question, and one that has a very complex answer.

First of all, most of the people who might know the answers don't speak English. Secondly, these histories are often sacred and only passed down to certain people in the group. And, to be honest, why should they tell outsiders anything? The explorers who "discovered" mysterious monuments like the Mayan ruins weren't exactly kind to the people they met. They killed them, treated them like slaves, and took their land. With a history like that, would you be forthcoming with your culture's secrets? I wouldn't be. 

With all of the people in the world, and all of the knowledge that is out there, I have NO doubt in my mind that there are people who know how the Easter Island monuments were placed where they are, what happened to the Indus Valley Civilization, and how the Great Pyramid was built.

We just have to start listening.