The Stone Age: Writing & Communication

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

While the Stone Age people might not have had the developed writing systems we have in the 21st century, our use of symbols to communicate seems to date back to this period, which you can learn more about in this lesson.

Beginnings of Communication

Many people consider the first language and writing to date from the 4th millennium BCE, but did you know there is evidence that the first forms of writing and communication date all the way back to the very first period of human history? This first period, the Paleolithic Age, is part of the larger Stone Age and spans a huge expanse of history, from the beginning of humanity until about 12,000 years ago. These first people are famous for their cave paintings that seem to detail hunting scenes, though they also may have had religious significance as well. Cave paintings are the first type of recorded communication we see in history and probably led to the development of language and writing, which we will talk about later.

European Stone Age cave painting
European Stone Age cave painting

Think of it this way: when you were a toddler, you probably tried to draw what you saw around you. But since you were not very advanced, a drawing of your mom might have looked like a few lines with eyes and a smile. When you were in elementary school, you might have had more advanced drawing skills and been able to draw a round head and block-like torso, even describing your mom, saying, ''My mom has brown hair. It is long.'' But as a teenager or adult, your skills get even more advanced: maybe you can draw your mom in detail, capturing the color of her eyes or her hairstyle, or write about her with more vivid imagery, like ''My mom's hair is a mousey brown color, with abundant silky curls.''

The First Language?

Just like your expression and communication skills developed, so did the first people's. While they started out with basic drawings, usually of animals, their drawings seem to have been abstracted into symbols. One scholar explains that a drawing of a horse would be used in an abbreviated form as a symbol of the horse by just using the wavy line of the back. While calling this set of symbols a language or writing is not quite accurate, we can think of this as a type of proto-writing, or origin of writing. This Stone Age symbology contained a variety of different symbols that might be familiar to us, like hands, spirals, and ovals.

What is, perhaps, most interesting about Stone Age writing is not just the fact that it exists, but that it seems to have been used and understood by many different Stone Age groups in Europe, not just by one group of people in a particular place. Scholars have identified at least 26 specific symbols in this Stone Age proto-writing that are sometimes used alongside cave paintings, though often separate from them as well. Stone Age people used clay and charcoal mixed with spit and fat to draw their symbols on the rocks.

The common symbols used by Stone Age people
Stone Age symbols

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