Spaces For

Spaces For

October 13, 2021

Communication Through The Ages Part I

Spaces For

Where would we be without language and communication? How would I even ask you this question? How would you know what to think of these random scribbles on this light-emitting surface? Communication is one of our greatest achievements—and at the same time, one of our most overlooked ones too.

But who can blame us—it's so ingrained in everything we do, in almost every moment of our lives, that we take it for granted. As fascinating as communication is, the story of its evolution is not too far behind—so, welcome to this time-lapsed journey through history. Right from the origins of communication, through the twists and turns of its early forms, the Romanticism of the middle ages, all the way to the present day.

We're slightly different.

Unsurprisingly, the history of communication is intertwined with the history of speech, language and technology. And so we must bounce around a little in all these areas to unearth this story. Nevertheless, since we're hopelessly ego-centric creatures, we must first begin with a pat on our backs for the ability to communicate in the first place.

Our omniscient friend Google informs me that communication is "the imparting or exchanging of information by speaking, writing, or using some other medium." Within that sentence lies the clue to how we, as humans, are slightly different from our fellow species when it comes to communication. It turns out humans are modality-independent—meaning we can communicate the same information across multiple mediums (sign language, speech, text, images, videos) and our brains are able to optimally interpret it. This ability is unique to us as humans. In fact, as one of the writers of the origin of speech article on Wikipedia puts it, "This feature is extraordinary". If unbiased Wiki writers are moved to express amazement, while writing about said topic, we must try to appreciate how truly extraordinary this must be.

So, let's talk.

"Man is the only animal that can communicate by means of abstract symbols"—thus states Charles Hockett, as he goes on to share the systems and design features that separate human speech and language from other species. We can't pinpoint exactly when we were able to do this, but we do know this was the first form of communication that was beyond what we see in nature—in bird songs, wolf howls or cat meows. This is what kickstarted it all at least 500,000 years ago if not earlier.

At this stage, speech presumably helped in hunting, tool-building, waging wars, procreating and, in general, thriving. Speech has helped us pass down history, stories and legends from one generation to the next for millennia now. To this day, speech remains the most widely used method of communicating—since this is what we evolved to do.

But Ma, I want my message to time-travel.

Over time, of course, we realised real-time communication was so last mid-millennium. It was time that we wanted to communicate with each other in the future. Unsatisfied with the temporary nature of our markings on the ground, we struck upon the idea of painting on rocks, and in caves for good measure.

We got so good at it we're still communicating in this manner to this day, from 30,000 years ago. That is a very strongly not-yet-worded message. These are our original pioneering artists—I can only hope that they were lucky enough to taste more success in their lifetimes than some of their posthumously-hailed descendants from the 15th to 20th centuries. Some of the oldest surviving paintings from this prehistoric age have been found in Borneo, Spain and France.

About 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, this skill evolved, let's say with patience, into carvings on rocks, or petroglyphs. Interestingly, these petroglyphs have been found on all continents apart from Antarctica—suggesting this skill evolved independently on multiple continents and also travelled with migrating populations.

Repetitive pictures are the next leap.

The next step of the process was to let your comrades know—easily—what your pictures meant. Can you imagine how frustrated these early pioneers might feel when they see us struggling to understand what they depicted? Their next-few-of-kin must have felt similarly and so decided to pictorially represent physical objects with agreed meanings to reduce ambiguity. Thus came the rise of pictograms of which the ancient cuneiform of Mesopotamia is probably the most famous example.

Then came ideograms (early to middle Bronze age), which represented ideas—not just physical objects—and logograms, where each character represents a word, of which Egyptian hieroglyphs (evolved through 3000BC and onwards) and Chinese characters (evolved from second millennium BC) are the most famous examples. And where did we write them? Clay tablets and etched in stone of course.

Now, what about sending these messages out?

Can you guess the easiest way of sending the same message out to a large group of people? Shout it out. Top of your lungs. And, in the centre of the town. Sound familiar? Yes, those are town criers of yore. They have been around for millennia—and what better way to get the important news for the day or instructions from the mayor (or their equivalent). Possibly their crowning moment in History was when town criers in Germany implored the public not to use the river as a toilet a day before water was to be drawn to brew beer.

After a time, we finally figured out writing and recording—but what about sending these things out? You guessed it—it's time to turn to our best friend—the pigeon. It seems that this started very early, with the Egyptians, with their use in Greece and Persia not too far behind. There were, of course, couriers and messages delivered by foot and on horseback. The most famous of the records of these being that of Pheidippides, who ran 26 miles from Marathon to Athens to share the joy of Greece's victory over the Persians in 490BC. Coincidence? I think not—he must have known he was setting an example that would be followed millennia later, albeit to flaunt our fitness.

However, the first postal service was possibly established in Ancient Persia, around 550BC. There are many other instances of a postal service being established in India and other parts of Europe as well. The first well documented postal service, along with a courier and transportation service, was that of Rome, in first century AD—the Cursus Publicus. The first established system of long-distance, and quick, horse riders delivering messages, and presumably small couriers, can be attributed to Genghis Khan circa 1200AD.

So, we've come a long way these past 500,000 years or so—and in all that time of communicating, it's really only been the last few thousand years where any real progress has been made. It's bizarre, when you think about it, and the reasons are tenfold. Much of it was settling, farming and discovering metals, but really, once the snowball starts, we only have compounding to thank (just like a real snowball picking up more snow with a higher surface area). So where will all this momentum take us next? Tune in to Part II next week to find out.

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