On the Life Ball of my fantasy stories, a particular species of delphinidae- I call them black dolphins- have evolved and advanced at least as much as humans and other intelligent races.

A prior question gives additional details about the black dolphins, but the answers and comments also exposed a gap in my development of them1- civilized society leads to bureaucracy, and bureaucracy to so-called paper work. How does this sophisticated society store, retrieve, and disseminate information?

Here are a few examples of things that black dolphins might wish to record (items edited for brevity):

  • The following modification to the standard bubble-net strategy had proven highly effective in hunting anchovie bait-balls .....

  • Once upon a time in a sea far way, lived a very special porpoise ..... basket of goodies ..... porridge was just right ..... only through true love's first kiss ..... realized the evil lord was his father ..... and they lived happily ever after.

  • Sharks frequent the northeast corner of the reef during the third moon following the winter solstice. It is best to avoid this area at that time of year, or .....

  • The Grand High Council of the Yellow Reef Pod has decreed that no dolphin shall ..... violations shall be considered a Class 1 Misdemeanor, and subject to a penalty of .....

  • IT'S A BOY! That's right, Joanne in accounting has delivered a swift stream-lined son, 125cm and 18kg. Come meet the calf and celebrate with us. We will gather adjacent to the central fan coral at 1345 hours on Flukeday the 6th, for a special feast of mackerel and squid.

I can see two possibilities. First is a written language, the other is an extremely rich oral language relying heavily on very good- even eidetic- memory.

The last half-million to two-million years have given natural selection plenty of time for Real World(TM) homo sapiens to go from cave paintings and petroglyphs, to quipu and papyrus, to slate and chalk, to ink and paper, to digital media, to whatever lies beyond. The same amount of time can allow my black dolphins to adapt either the dexterity to write, or the memory to keep all stories and records without the need to write. Those dolphins that are best able to pass along knowledge will be the healthiest and most likely to survive to pass on their genes. Do those genes prefer the ability to hold a piece of coral and scratch marks on a rock2, or do they prefer the ability to perfectly recall and repeat a series of clicks, hums, and whistles?

I can see pros and cons both ways, thus my question boils down to - which scenario is more likely, and why?

1Despite the clear relationship, all questions and their answers should remain independent of each other.

2Optional Extra Credit: If you decide writing is more likely- is the writing utensil held in a fin or the snout? How does this impact other dolphin abilities?

  • $\begingroup$ Happy to see I inspired a follow-up question :-D $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 15:16
  • $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM - Yes, indeed. And you have my thanks. $\endgroup$
    – cobaltduck
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 15:20
  • $\begingroup$ You are quite welcome! $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 15:23

3 Answers 3


I would expect an oral history for 2 main reasons:

1. Lack of complex tool usage:

Humans and other apes developed fine motor manipulation ability (hands) to allow us to move around in trees, obtain food from complex sources (picking fruit, prying open a clam, manipulating a stick to catch termites, etc.), and throw things as a method of ranged attack. Writing or written language is so recent (a few thousand years) that it is unlikely to have had any individual evolutionary advantage or effect. Your dolphins lack this ability due to their evolutionary environment. This would make manipulating materials very difficult, especially when you try to come up with an enduring method of marking in their environment.

2. Short longevity of early symbols in an ocean environment:

Human writing likely started with splatters of mud and evolved to cave drawing images and later to more complex symbolic systems like writing. Your dolphin species as mentioned in the original question can make ephemeral artistic displays in sand or with moving rocks, so symbology may not be completely foreign. But for humanity piles of stones or pictures drawn in mud under the right conditions lasted a very long time, making them very useful not just artistic. While underwater, constantly moving tides and water currents would make lasting symbols, scratches on stone or shells or large rock formations resistant to water movement, more difficult to accomplish, especially given the dolphins lack of dexterity.

Just because the record keeping is oral doesn't mean they wouldn't specialize or have a complex society:

Increased memory and recall may be a species wide trait, but everyone in society doesn't need to remember all these things themselves. Expect their society to make niches for record keepers for various kinds of information. Expect a storyteller, traveling bard, local clerk, bookkeeper, town crier, or other specialties for remembering and sharing specific types of information. Often some of these roles would likely have religious or other strong cultural support.

A side effect of this specialization in oral information transfer is the requirement for a long term education systems to pass on the large amount of information to following generations so you would likely have apprentices who would learn the tales and specialized information from the master serving as a backup and eventual replacement for society. Expect lifetime specialization with fixed societal roles.

This system would have definite limits, so information would only be kept as long as it was useful and would be unlikely to spread outside of it's immediate field of application. A priest or lawyer might apprentice for the position by memorizing the law or religious canon; the kelp farmers would have to remember planting techniques and seasonal timings; the squid hunters would remember hunting techniques and the squid migration roots; the storyteller would memorize the tales of history... etc.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Biting of seashells might be able to leave long lasting marks, though I imagine that manipulation of shells to leave precisely varied bite marks might be somewhat challenging. $\endgroup$
    – nijineko
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 20:42
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    $\begingroup$ I intentionally avoided mentioning in the question, but this is almost exactly my thoughts. The dolphins needs fins for fast swimming and snouts for nabbing prey- any modification of these features for other purposes will come at a cost, whereas the hands we humans adapted are equally suited for throwing rocks and spears as for holding small tools, like pencils. Thanks for the confirmation that I'm not crazy, it's always nice when Great Minds Think Alike. $\endgroup$
    – cobaltduck
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 13:40

Let me try a written-language possibility. It's a long shot ...

Remember that dolphins have a "sonar" capability that basically detects sound that they emit being reflected on the surfaces in front of them. They can even send powerful sound bursts able to stun small preys.

By arranging rocks in the bottom of the ocean, in low-current areas, they construct their stories. Their sonar is able to reconstruct a mental image of these arrangements in order to read them, even without light.

To avoid currents and animals moving those rocks around, they could fill the gaps with a layer of sand. The sand does not block so much sound waves, so the sonar would still be efficient. Alternatively, they could find some sort of cement (some occur naturally in microbe-rich environments) to make it more stable.

Such writings could take a lot of space (small rocks would be unstable), but make your ocean bigger :)

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ A spectacularly good idea. You underestimate sonar. It penetrates surfaces in a way that light cannot. I doubt that they would need rocks. Provided the chosen site is not churned by burrowing life, grooves in the horizontal layers of sediment should remain sonar-visible long after they have re-filled with newer sediment. A good location would be deep and naturally oxygen-depleted which would kill fish and marine invertebrates. Dolphins do not breathe water, so not a problem for them. $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Commented Dec 22, 2016 at 11:17
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    $\begingroup$ If the OP is considering dolphin culture the sonar sense is highly significant. Dolphins have direct sonar-visual access to the internal state of other dolphins. Heart-rate, gut contents, early pregnancy, cancer, on display to all who look. Can dolphins lie? $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Commented Dec 22, 2016 at 11:26

I think that the dolphins could develop a written language, or perhaps I mean a physical one, although it would likely come quite late in their culture, after a long oral tradition.

So, the earliest attempt at markings would likely be made in soft sand, or perhaps even clay - maybe at first even accidental markings prompting a re-telling of the story until the mark is gone ("and he was so distracted he plowed right into the seafloor! you can still see the mark!"), and later evolving into something functionally like chalk and slate - or perhaps more like hand gestures - something that would be intended to be a temporary sketch for visualization purposes, to illustrate a story or diagram a concept. Perhaps a further exploration of this would be the use of stones for markers, making arrangements to symbolize some explanation, make a temporary map, or just for aesthetic purposes. This wouldn't directly lead to writing, as the water currents and sea tides would quickly alter any structures and so they would lack permanence, but it might be a starting point.

The next step, I think, might be souvenirs. They would need a strong oral history to get to this point, but it might be possible that as the number of stories keep growing, a story that is great or memorable may have the bards, history keepers or story-tellers (however the culture is spun out) tying the story to some concrete artifact - perhaps a tangible souvenir, perhaps a representative stand-in ("used this kind of shell to mark the location" or "and broke the stone! I actually have a piece here...). Possibly this might include landmarks of great tales, people might want to visit places where great things happened, and storytellers would want to learn the tale directly.

This would be an advantage to those story-tellers, those stories would be easier to remember and harder to overlook with a tangible reminder sitting right there, it might serve as a rough way for someone else to mark stories, to ask for them or mark their seriousness, and the stories would be more likely to be passed on successfully, in the end. This is still not writing or anything, but it seems a natural sort of progression for a culture to take. There might be sea-caves where such collections are kept, or eventually even walled off areas to keep the currents from dragging them away (though I expect stone and shell, which are somewhat more durable, might be preferred).

Then, perhaps, there might be a slow evolution of sculpture - great tales with no convenient souvenir or memorial piece (or when there were too many similar looking ones) might have storytellers out looking for really good symbolic ones, or eventually, having stones or shells be modified to make the connection to the story more explicit. Perhaps chipping or rubbing off edges against another rock, or biting for something like shell or bone (as a learning material, perhaps, I don't think it's that durable underwater), or dragging larger stones into mini-reproductions of landscapes or representations. I think that some great tales (or wanna-be great tales) would try for large sculptures as memorials - it would be much easier to see and work with gross changes rather than fine ones given the physiology.

So once there's a technology in place for sculpture, then I think writing is only a matter of time. As they accumulate more and more history, the density of information will be valued - the more information that can be fit in a smaller space, the better. Sculptures would eventually begin to acquire shorthand modifications, probably passed down from storyteller to apprentice, which can serve as more abstract symbols. And the symbols (eventually, eventually) could be pieced together to convey meaning without needing to be on a sculpture, or the sculpture will become more and more abstract as more information needs to be crammed onto the space, until it is an intricately decorated memory stone, not a mimetic sculpture or an intuitive souvenir.

I expect the final result would be something kind of like hieroglyphics, using symbolic stand-ins and metaphors and modifying them to communicate greater meaning, since the tie with sculpture would mean the markings and symbols would likely come from pictures... or the equivalent thereof, sonar-images, it's just the difference between image-first pictographs or logographs and sound-based syllabic and alphabetic symbols.

So, stepping back a little to see the whole picture - I expect your dolphin people would be starting with large, heavy markers (stones arranged in patterns and sunk partially into sand) and the rough shaping of preexisting structures, since these would be easier to see and to shape, and consequently they would only be made for very important things. Over time, the importance of adding more and more information would prioritize space, and the symbols would shrink and become more abstract, and could be afforded for more trivial things.

Physiologically, I think your dolphins would be gripping their tools in their snout, since modifying a fin would directly impact their speed and swimming ability. It might be possible, though, to modify some of the teeth near the back of the snout for gripping (the front teeth being needed for hunting with, looks like conical teeth to grab with). This would also have the effect of placing the tool being gripped close to the eye, the better to see what they're working on - dolphin eyes can move independently, and I'm not sure their vision overlaps as much as ours does to focus on details at the tip of the snout.

It is possible that in addition to back teeth specializing to gripping tools (perhaps coral bits or shell fragments, which can eventually be produced on demand), the side of the mouth or even the tongue might modify to give more dexterity and control for using tools with. I'm sort of picturing a multi-tentacled tongue for very fine dexterity, but it doesn't have to go that way... it just might, once dexterity becomes useful and fine control is translatable to a survival trait.


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