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The drum is one of the earliest methods of ancient communication.  Source: zolotareva_elina / Adobe Stock

The Evolution of Ancient Communication Methods

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Throughout history, communication wasn’t as effortless as it is today. In today’s world, you can connect with people in every part of the world within seconds and access an almost infinite amount of information via a variety of communications tools. We have multiple means of communicating, which we often take for granted. Looking back to ancient human communication methods you’ll notice just how limited communication could be, and see just how far the human race has come.

Lightning Speed of Modern Communication

You needed to learn about ancient communication methods, so you opened your preferred search engine and typed in a few words. Suddenly, you gained access to multiple sources to educate yourself, and here you are. Acquiring this information took you under a minute - a privilege one couldn’t even imagine in earlier years when there was no such thing as the internet.

A is a blessing when it comes to communicating over long distances. Before the internet and subsequent technologies, communicating with people outside your neighborhood was time-consuming and expensive, if not impossible.

So, what did day-to-day interaction and socialization look like in the past?

Ancient North American tribes used smoke signals to communicate, by Frederic Remington. (Public Domain)

Ancient North American tribes used smoke signals to communicate, by Frederic Remington. (Public Domain)

Vocal Communication

It may not come as a surprise that ‘speech’ of one sort or another was used as the first attempt at communicating among people of ancient times. Different sounds and noises were used to attract the attention of others and convey simple messages. Common examples include hunting calls and cries to issue warnings.

In the very beginning, people didn’t have a language, and there was no formation of words or sentences. What they were trying to say could be distinguished by the tone of vocalization, the volume, and other characteristics. Apart from that, our ancestors may have used body language and hand gestures to interact, but we don’t have actual evidence for it.

While basic sounds were practical for communicating with people nearby, some supporting equipment was required to convey messages to far-off locations. Therefore, whistles, horns, and drums were invented later on. The sounds from these instruments were normally used for sending signals related to battle or confrontation and the performance of ancient rituals.

The Neanderthal cave bear femur flute of Cerkno Slovenia. (dalbera from Paris/CC BY 2.0)

The Neanderthal cave bear femur flute of Cerkno Slovenia. (dalbera from Paris/CC BY 2.0)

The earliest forms of vocal communication can be described as simplistic and linear. They were not developed enough to have a conversation but were fairly useful for self-expression and forewarning. In the aftermath, the ancient beings learned to make rhythms, which set the foundation for music and folk songs that followed.

Visual Communication

Where the practicality and effectiveness of vocal communication ended, the feasibility of visual communication ascended. Sounds, noises, and cries couldn’t explain many things or situations, which is why the people of prehistoric times came up with visual ciphers.

A popular example of visual communication inherited from our ancestors is the use of fire and smoke signals. For instance, if people are stranded in an isolated area that has no access to modern technologies like phones and the internet, these ancient methods for visual communication are still applicable.

Once again, the use of light and fire to issue signals was linear; these visuals were useful for warning about approaching danger or as a call for help, but other than that the purpose was restricted. The ancient people eventually advanced to carvings on walls, trees, rocks, and other naturally occurring surfaces.

Petroglyphs from Häljesta, Sweden. Nordic Bronze Age (Olof Ekström/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Petroglyphs from Häljesta, Sweden. Nordic Bronze Age (Olof Ekström/CC BY-SA 3.0)

These ancient carvings are now referred to as pictograms and petroglyphs. The ancient dwellers used lithic and similar sharp tools carved into the hard surfaces, and later used implements made of metal. Most of the early carvings include silhouettes and drawings of animals, such as tigers, deer, and birds.

Some drawings also represented human and animal hybrids, which could be the inspiration behind mythical creatures like the centaur and minotaur.

Written Communication

The development of writing systems was a turning point in ancient communication methods. It’s unclear who invented writing first, but it is possible that it was independently discovered in multiple regions of the world. The first forms of writing were derived from pictograms; these pictograms were meant to depict particular objects, but they became more abstract over time.

The first alphabet consisting of a limited set of distinguishable syllables was introduced somewhere around 2000 BC. However, most of the symbols used for written communication did not have a specific sound assigned to them. The primary use of written communication was doing math and creating inscriptions for tombstones.

Cuneiform script was used to write several languages of the Near East, with examples found dating back to around 3500 BC.

Clay tablet with cuneiform script. (Public domain)

Clay tablet with cuneiform script. (Public domain)

The ancient Egyptians are known to be the first to establish a proper and elaborate written system for communication around 3100 BC. This system, which has been named ‘Proto-Sinaitic’, is speculated to have been developed either during the 19th century BC by Canaanite workers living in the Sinai Peninsula, or during the 15th century BC by Semitic workers living in Central Egypt.

Even though early writings were preserved on the hard surfaces of rocks and pebbles, later the lighter and more convenient papyrus became the norm. Papyrus is comparable to a thicker and cruder form of modern paper. Despite being less durable than clay tablets, papyrus served as a handy and user-friendly alternative for recording large amounts of data.

The ancient Greeks are given credit for formulating the first true alphabet in 800 BC. This alphabet included symbols to represent the sound of vowels; this alphabet has inspired the modern alphabet through generations.

The Romans introduced the alphabet to write the Latin language a hundred years later. This alphabet is considered a slightly advanced adaptation of the Greek alphabet and serves as the groundwork for several modern written languages today.

Following Communication Eras

Once sophisticated written languages came into being, the art of letter writing and calligraphy emerged. Not sure about pigeons, but the first postal system was established by the Persian Empire in the 6th century. The 15th century marked the beginning of the Printing Revolution. This was when printed books became widely available and could be distributed to a large audience.

Next was the Morse Code and Telegraph Era, which surfaced in the middle of the 19th century. This was when long-distance communication started becoming expedient. It was during this same century when Graham Bell invented the telephone and took mass communication to new heights. Radio, television, and dial-up internet were born in the 20th century.

Telegraph key and sounder. The signal is "on" when the knob is pressed, and "off" when it is released. (Public Domain)

Telegraph key and sounder. The signal is "on" when the knob is pressed, and "off" when it is released. (Public Domain)

Closing Thoughts

Today we have progressed to wireless and high-speed internet connections, and let’s not forget that Graham’s bulky wired telephone was the basis for modern smartphones. We should be grateful for the colossal resources of information at our fingertips and how easily we can keep in touch with our loved ones, regardless of the physical distance.

Top image: The drum is one of the earliest methods of ancient communication.  Source: zolotareva_elina / Adobe Stock

By Aiden Gray

 

Comments

The celts also had almost instant verbal communication using the natural acoustics of the landscape. The Ancient Paths by Graham Rob explains this in detail

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Avery

Born with a passion for storytelling and graduating with a Computer Science degree, Avery combines the two in his profession as a writer. He writes for various blogs and brands in the tech and lifestyle niche. In his free time,... Read More

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