EVIDENCE OF THE PREHISTORIC SOURCES OF HUMOR: A Rejected Thesis [Originally published in Storytelling Magazine]
Andy Offutt Irwin
(Author’s note: The writer acknowledges the broad readership of Storytelling Magazine and the many faith traditions represented herein; there are those who may take a Creationist view of the origins of humor rather than a Scientific/Evolutionary approach. The author respects those opinions.)
Comedic anthropologists agree, all primitive human laughter was brought on by minor pains or mishaps befalling one person or a group of persons witnessed by another person or group of persons. The earliest, most primitive language had not reached a sophistication necessary to form a verbal joke; early conversation was elemental, structured merely around the three rudiments of survival: 1- elusion of danger, 2- alimentation, and 3- shelter.
- In times of danger: “Run!”
- Gathering sustenance: “Here, try this.”
- Making shelter: ” Hold this stick while I pound it into the ground with this rock tied to another stick.”
The above number three (3) gave rise to the occurrence of the first intentional laugh which came in the form of, what we would now call, a practical joke.
Administered by a primitive farceur, the practical joke was an act of physical comedy, designed to create a situation conducive to an individual coming close to being seriously injured (funny), but not quite to the point of death (not as funny).
Within the Paleolithic Cave paintings of Lascaux, France (the earliest known comic strip), a story is depicted wherein one person – let’s call him Iocus – is altering the primitive hammer of his friend – we’ll name him Plumbus – by untying the knot in the rawhide string holding the rock to the stick. The tying of an object requires tension in the cordage; untying brings about the release.
Tension and release. Please hold that blatantly foreshadowed thought. Thank you.
Iocus had gathered all the people he could find to watch Plumbus in anticipation of his attempt to use the altered hammer. Those who were wittiness to the event were indeed rewarded, for as Plumbus swung his hammer upward, the rock came free. As the empty handle struck the ground, the previously skyward rock began its descent. Plumbus raised the empty stick to his curious eyes, and within two seconds the rock struck him on the head. All who witnessed the rock flying off the handle, laughed, except, of course, Plumbus, who, himself, flew off the handle. You may be guessing correctly; in the advancement of communication beyond its aforementioned elemental-survival form, many linguists feel this event brought about the advent of the metaphor.
Furthermore, when the rock came to rest on the ground (after bouncing twice on Plumbus’s head) the combined sounds can be best described as, “badda-boom.” It is the opinion of this author, a thoroughgoing soi-disant socio-lexical acoustician, the verbal imitation of this noise gave rise to the use of the onomatopoeia, a primitive skill useful in the retelling of the event.
Indeed, the retelling of the event, or more’s to the point, the telling of this or any event, brought the ability to help others relive the event.
These witnesses who retold that event – let us call them storytellers – remembered the literal tension and release of the cordage of the rock on the stick. They began to retell the incident using pauses (causing tension) and payoffs (bringing release). This figurative tension and release brought about the advent of comedic timing.
A side note: Later, musicians picked up on this idea of timing created by tension and release. This is called, musical phrasing.