Methods of Communication in Ancient Times

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  • 0:01 Modern Communication
  • 0:41 Writing Systems
  • 3:30 Non-Writing Systems
  • 5:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

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. 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.

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