Old memory techniques

Object: memory chain from the Vili people
Memory chain from the Vili people with 80 small plastic figures as memory aids for public speakers, Republic of Congo, second half of the 19th century, photograph by: Punctum/Bertram Kober
Grassi Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig, Staatliche Ethnographische Sammlungen Sachsen, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

Old memory techniques

Saving information before writing

People in traditional cultures are impressive in the inventive means by which they record information for later retrieval with visual means rather than writing.

Harald Haarmann, Geschichte der Schrift, 2004

Humans were using tally sticks, knotted strings, message sticks, figure chains and many other such items as tools for communication in the early stages both prior to writing and in the early stages of its development. These artefacts (sometimes referred to as “object script”) served as mnemonic devices. The number of notches in a piece of wood, the type and number of knots in a string, or the arrangement of figures, shells and pearls on a chain were used as proxies for real-life events and people which were meant to be remembered.

This visualisation made it easier to memorise details and retrieve them after long periods of time. With their specific markings or forms, these mnemonic devices were also used as a crib sheet for invitation and recitation, as inventory, registers of debtors and ancestors or for relaying messages of love. They were often incorporated into formal or ceremonial rituals and served to keep collective memory alive. Peoples without written languages use these traditions to this day, and they have found their way into modern German expressions, such as “to have a few notches on the tally stick” (to have been around for a while) or “to make a knot in the handkerchief” (to create a reminder).