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In this digital age, we take communication for granted. In this lesson, we’ll look at several methods of ancient communication, including written forms like engraved pictures and alphabets, and non-written forms like quipus and signaling.

Modern Communication

Communication is essential to our society. The experts say we’re in a communications revolution, as communications technology is among the fastest growing fields in the world and is actively reshaping our daily lives.We’re not the first society to get this.

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People of the ancient world also realized that good communication was the secret to a successful civilization, and they put monumental efforts into increasing their abilities to communicate. But without smart phones and social media, how did they manage? With things like the telegraph a millennia away, ancient people found their own ways to spread and preserve information. Want to know more? Well, let’s talk about it.

Writing Systems

Let’s first look at images representing words.

One of the most fundamental tools developed by ancient people to record and share information was a system of writing. Now, a true writing system must fully, accurately, and consistently represent the entirety of a spoken language, so this is actually a fairly serious undertaking, and ancient people found different ways to do this.The first writing systems used images to represent words. Scholars disagree on who gets the title of first written language, the cuneiform system, or wedge-shaped characters, of the ancient Sumerians, or the Egyptians with their hieroglyphics, or drawn symbols.Generally, cuneiform is believed to have come first, arriving in the 4th century BCE.

Both of these systems used symbols to represent first entire words, and then just sounds. Each syllable was represented by an image, and by combining the syllables words were formed. This combination of images and sounds seems to have been a common first step in developing a written language. The Maya people of Central America, the only Mesoamerican culture to develop writing, was based on a similar system.Now let’s look at proper alphabets.

The use of images to represent syllables within the spoken language was a system with lots and lots of characters to memorize. Eventually, other cultures developed something easier, a system in which characters represented just the most basic speech sounds in a language. We call this an alphabet.Several cultures developed alphabets to simplify their writing systems, but the first were the Phoenicians, ancient maritime traders of the Mediterranean Sea. The Phoenician alphabet contained 22 letters, which could be combined into all of the possible sounds in the language. This was a lot easier to use than a system with 400 or so characters.Since they were such prolific traders, the Phoenician alphabet became the de facto language used to conduct trade across the Mediterranean and became widely adopted.

In fact, it’s the basis of the alphabet we still use in English today.Ancient people quickly learned that writing had many applications in daily life and found ways to record that information. Imperial decrees were carved into stone, while minor transactions and lesser items were scratched into wax or clay.

Cultures that wanted to be able to transport their writings developed lighter materials and inks to stain them. The Egyptians used papyrus since roughly 3000 BCE. The ancient Chinese invented paper around 100 BCE. Romans used carrier pigeons to relay written messages across their empire, a practice they probably got from ancient Persians.

And speaking of the Romans, ever wonder why they were so obsessed with roads? Well, one reason was that better roads meant easier and more consistent communication. Messages came in, messages went out. The Romans were a communication-based society.

Non-Writing Systems

Now, of course, not everyone in history developed true writing systems. Even if those that did needed other ways to communicate as well. So, how was information recorded or relayed without writing? Well, one way was to create memory devices.Let’s first look at some mnemonic devices. While the Maya had the only true writing system in the Americas, other cultures developed image-based systems that were essentially formalized mnemonic devices.

The Mexica, the people of the Aztec Empire, were especially gifted with these. Mexica books can’t be read, not like a true writing system could, but the educated noble using them would use the pictures as guides and reminders about history, medicine, architectural practices, or any of the other things valued by Aztec society.Perhaps the most intriguing of these systems, however, comes not from the Aztecs but from the Inca in Peru. The Inca, and their ancestors, recorded information on brightly-colored knotted cords called quipus. Nobody has yet fully deciphered the secret to reading the quipus, but it is evident that the Andean people recorded vast amounts of information through this complex system of cords and knots.Now let’s look at something called signaling.

One last aspect of ancient communication that bears mentioning is the concept of signaling, used to communicate quickly over long distances. Perhaps the most advanced example of this comes from ancient China. Along the Great Wall and beyond, the Chinese built several series of signaling towers. If a fire was lit, then all of the towers that could see it would light their fires, then the towers that could see those signals lit their fires, and so on. By some estimations, the Chinese army could send basic signals up to 500 miles in a matter of hours using this system.

Lesson Summary

Communication has been one of the driving forces for human ingenuity across our entire history, and people in the ancient world found some great ways to spread information.

Many developed writing systems, which used symbols to represent the entire spoken language. The oldest of these was based on wedge-shaped characters carved into stone, called cuneiform, developed by ancient Sumerians. Early writing systems often used characters to represent entire words or syllables. Even drawn images were used, like with Egyptian hieroglyphics.Later, the Phoenicians developed a simpler system using letters to represent simple sounds within a spoken language, called an alphabet. Other people found ways to communicate beyond writing.

The Mexica of the Aztec Empire used images to create complex mnemonic devices. The Inca of Peru used complex systems of knotted cords called quipus. To communicate simple messages over a distance, many cultures like the ancient Chinese used signaling techniques like fire to spread information quickly.Regardless of how they did it, ancient people realized long before us that communication technology can change the world.

Learning Outcomes:

After you’ve finished the video, you should be able to:

  • Describe the different writing systems that have been used by ancient people
  • List some of the non-writing systems used by ancient people

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