Just in time for the holidays, our primary season for collective fictions - Ebenezer Scrooge, the Nutcracker Prince, Santa Claus - a team of researchers has published, in the peer-edited journal Nature Communications, the results of an extensive study of storytelling among the Agta, a contemporary population of hunter-gatherers in the Philippines.
The lesson: Stories matter.
Scientists are fascinated by the few groups of hunter-gatherers remaining on the planet, since it is thought that they reflect our species' earliest successful way of life, before the invention of agriculture.
They are closely studied to solve a riddle that has long puzzled evolutionary biologists: How did humans learn cooperative behaviour such as food-sharing, the care of others, the coordination of tasks, the acceptance of social norms? The answer, it seems, has everything to do with the stories we tell.
As is typical among bands of foragers, Agta stories emphasise the values of gender equality, friendship and the social acceptance of difference.
Consider the following myth: "There is a dispute between the sun (male) and the moon (female) to illuminate the sky. After a fight, where the moon proves to be as strong as the sun, they agree in sharing the duty - one during the day and the other during the night."
The research established that individuals who live in camps with a greater proportion of skilled storytellers cooperate more readily with one another and are therefore more successful in their foraging.
The Agta themselves are fully aware of the benefits conferred upon them by the best makers and performers of stories. When asked to choose with whom they would most like to live, they overwhelmingly favoured gifted storytellers over those who were known for their skill in hunting, fishing, tuber gathering or medicine.
Life, most of those polled agreed, is simply better in the company of good stories.
The Agta are evidently willing to reward the gift they most value. Data collected in the course of the study show that the best storytellers have better fitness and higher reproductive success. (Skilled storytellers, the paper reports, had an additional 0.53 living offspring compared to non-skilled storytellers.) The scientists concluded that by providing a service that enhances social cooperation, skilled storytellers receive increased support from others and are thus rewarded for their outstanding contribution to the group's overall success.
This time of year, the stories that most unite us are fantasies in which we are not (except as small children) asked to put our faith. Unlike, say, the biblical accounts of Adam and Eve and the birth of Jesus, these festive tales generally do not draw masses of faithful who insist as a point of dogma on their literal truth. On the contrary, either our playful seasonal stories are clearly understood from the start to be fictional or, in the case of Santa Claus, they become fictional in time.
Indeed, for millions of people, generation after generation, awakening at some point in childhood to the fact that Santa Claus is an invention is their primary early experience of disillusionment. If there is a lingering sadness in this literal loss of an illusion, the loss serves also as a powerful ritual of maturity, a threshold across which we are all expected to cross, an acceptance of the distinction between reality and make-believe.
The American cult of Santa Claus, with his rosy cheeks and his sleigh full of toys, can be traced back to the poem. A Visit From St Nicholas" (better known as 'Twas The Night Before Christmas), first published in The Troy Sentinel on Dec 23, 1823. If we were the Agta, we would have conferred honour and wealth upon the poem's spectacularly gifted storyteller, but in fact it was published anonymously, and the identity of the author is still the subject of debate.
Many scholars attribute it to Clement Clarke Moore, a professor of literature and divinity at New York's Episcopal General Theological Seminary. Others argue that it was written by the Poughkeepsie poet Henry Livingston Jr. The author, whoever it was, is unlikely to have received more than a pittance for his effort.
But as a culture, we make up for our failure to have rewarded the poet directly by pouring out our riches in an annual frenzy of gift-giving. This gift-giving has become a crucial element in our national economy and hence our well-being as a commercial society. This season, even in a bitterly contentious time, the storyteller has once again done the key work of fashioning cooperation among us. The Agta are clearly right.