Communication in the Ancient World


This informational essay is devoted to the investigation of a wide range of communication means used by people in ancient times from the pre-writing period until the development of ancient Greek and Latin alphabets. The paper aims to capture and discuss the major information sharing and storage methods prevailing throughout the identified periods and demonstrate how communication technologies emerged and evolved. To meet the formulated objective and support the arguments provided in the paper, the evidence from recent scholarly resources is evaluated. In conclusion, the primary prerequisites of technology evolution are discussed as well.


The need for communication, transfer, and storage of information appeared along with the emergence of human society. It is valid to say that the informational aspect of multiple activities is one of the primary factors of the intellectual and economic capabilities of individuals, communities, and states. Originating in those times when the earliest signs of human civilization began to manifest themselves, different means of communication were continuously improved by the changing life conditions, development of new cultures and technologies. The same applies to the means of data recording and processing.

Today, some of those technologies are regarded as obsolete, while others have become an integral part of the contemporary lifestyle and give modern people an ability to share their knowledge, experience, ideas, and emotions easily regularly.

However, not many individuals recognize that the complex visual and written media, which societies have nowadays, originate from simple communication technologies created in antiquity when ancient communities had to develop and discover new methods to share and record various types of information and make it understandable for others. Considering this, the following paper will discuss the history and evolution of ancient communication systems and technologies starting from the pre-writing period (30,000-20.000 years BC). The paper will proceed with the description of a few examples of technology from ancient Egypt and Greece.

Oral-Based Communication

To begin with, it is necessary to mention that the first intention of ancient people to communicate with one another was speech. As stated by Pochatko (2017), societal problems forerun writing and, therefore, communication technologies precede writing as well. People communicated with each other mainly by using town criers and local verbal means, which allowed them to convey simple messages, such as warnings and calls for hunting, using noises, sounds, and intonations.

The sound as such is a basic element of human communication. However, when there is a long distance between collocutors, some auxiliary and supporting communication methods are required. Therefore, people started to use such primitive technologies as whistles, animal horns, and other instruments to considerably increase the volume of the sound. For instance, since ancient times, African drum communication systems serve to convey various signals, e.g., ritualistic and military, to distant receivers (Zulu, 2017).

The evidence provided above implies that communication in antiquity was primarily linear (Agbo & Tsegba, 2015). Nevertheless, simple means of oral communication evolved into more complex systems of orality, which allowed ancient people to develop mythological and poetical discourses through text recitals and performances. The major difference of rhetoric as a communication technology from an everyday form of interpersonal communication is strict adherence to genres and registers, the materiality of recited texts (i.e., availability of references), their historicity, and the performance of social functions (Pochatko, 2017).

For example, such widely known forms of oral documentation as folk songs, cries, and rhythms were used within indigenous tribes to educate the young people and pass the knowledge about the world structure to them. As Schellnack-Kelly (2017) states, oral narratives could serve “as a means of communicating about fauna and flora” and “a language of ecological intelligence” (p. 19). However, it is worth noticing that the oral communication culture did not attempt to preserve the knowledge of skills and was not used as how-to-do-it manuals (Pochatko, 2017). Ancient singers and criers rather communicated abstract, cultural, and historical knowledge to their peers.

Visual Communication Means

As it was mentioned above, oral-based communication technologies were associated with a few significant drawbacks and limitations: they implied communication through immediate and linear interactions and they were prone to inaccuracy in the delivery of information, whereas singers and criers often could not explain something in detail. Therefore, to satisfy their evolving communication needs, tribes in different parts of the world started to use various visual symbols, which consequently contributed to the technological growth of humanity.

Since the distant past, people have used light as one of the primary carriers of information. For example, Khan (2017) states that in ancient times, messages were conveyed using such methods as fire and smoke signals, and later the optical communication methodologies based on similar principles of function were used throughout the history of humanity. In the given communication system, watch posts located around settlements on specially constructed towers and sometimes simply in trees were used as information transmitters. When an enemy approached, watchers lit fire alarm to warn their neighbors about the approaching danger.

In their nature, the described visual communication techniques are closer to oral means of interaction as they imply an immediate, linear transmission of messages. However, along with the invention of new methods of signal communication, ancient people started to invent various means aimed to capture information and preserve it. The earliest objects that represent non-linear communication means used by ancient people are carvings on rocks, cave walls, and other natural materials.

These communication methods also are known as pictograms and petroglyphs. This finding makes it obvious that these communication means were invented during at least 30,000-20.000 years BC (Comba, 2014). The technology ancestors used to leave carving (that can be found and examined even today) was simple. They utilized a small rock to hit a spear ending, or another sharp metal tool leaned against a wall or a rock (Woods & Woods, 2011). By hitting the back of the metal piece, they drew silhouettes that reminded of deer, tigers, and other animals. One of the most ancient collections of such cave drawings is located in Chauvet Cave in France where one can find hundreds of animalistic images.

It is possible to say that the primary intention of such a communication method was to teach or warn other people about various threats. However, some of the discovered ancient cave images depict imaginary creatures, such as half-humans and half-animals. For this reason, Comba (2014) notes that the technology of cave art could also fulfill the narrative function by depicting a structure of the world consisting of invisible domains and hidden dimensions and could even be used by ecstatic practitioners “in establishing relationships with and acquiring knowledge from these multiple dimensions of the universe” (p. 1).

Woods and Woods (2011) also note that some ancient carvings depicted patterns resembling calendars of the moon’s phases. Nevertheless, no matter what particular functions cave carvings performed, this technology helped individuals leave messages to their descendants and fostered communication in a non-linear manner.

During the pre-writing period, people could also use various objects such as sticks, pebbles, and clay figures to convey particular messages. The communication using physical objects is also known as the token system, which, according to Schmandt-Besserat (2014), bore hardly any similarity with spoken language, apart from the fact that a token, like a word, stood for one concept. Additionally, Kriwaczek (2014) notes that since tokens were associated with a single type of information merely and did not imply the use of syntax, the given communication means were primarily utilized to keep count of property, commodities, and animals.

One of the bright examples illustrating communication through objects is wampumpeag used by North American indigenous tribes. Wampums are threads with shells, which could be worn as belts and body decorations or even used as money at later historical stages, yet their main historical purpose was the transmission of messages from one tribe to another by expressing indented message content through colors, quantities of shells, and their position on the thread (Allen, 2017). With the help of the Wampum belt system, some American indigenous tribes (e.g., Iroquois, Algonquin) arranged peace treaties, made alliances, and empowered ambassadors. They might keep entire archives of the documents comprised of shell beads.

Overall, in token communication systems, objects obtain a conditional signaling power and symbolic connotations, which can be understood merely in the circumstances of preliminary mutual agreement on the designated meanings of those objects. It is possible to say that communication using objects and pictures could not convey the complexity of oral speech, yet it was an important step towards the development of more elaborated communication technologies.

The emergence of Writing Systems and Technologies

It is possible to say that the development of writing systems was a turning point in the evolution of communication technologies. According to Schmandt-Besserat (2014), it is possible that writing could have been independently invented three times in different locations: in the Near East, China, and Mesoamerica. The Sumerian form of writing also known as cuneiform writing was among the first systems of written communication, which developed throughout a few centuries from pictograms and drawings.

While visual symbols used in pictograms depicted a particular object, it was fairly difficult to comprehend accurately. Cuneiform signs became much more simplified because they started to represent more abstract symbols − sounds. In this way, the number of symbols in the system was drastically reduced, and, at some point, they became stylized in a way that almost did not resemble pictures from which they originated.

However, it is considered that the first alphabet comprised of signs equivalent to separate syllables was created by Phoenicians in the nearly 2000 years BC (Petrariu, 2013). In total, there were 22 signs in their written communication system, yet they did not have symbols for vowel sounds. The Phoenician script was not only the first alphabetic script in history but also the most significant one because it influenced the development of other written communication systems in states that were in diplomatic relationships with Phoenicians, e.g., Egypt (Woods & Woods, 2011).

At the same time, Agbo and Tsegba (2015) state that the earliest evidence of the Ancient Egyptian writing system dates back to the period of Naqada IIIA1 (c. 3300 BC). Both studies indicate that just like in the case with token systems of communication, the major purpose of writing during the early times was counting, accounting, and composition of funerary inscriptions. Ancient Egyptians were among the first to establish an elaborate written communication system and support it through technological advancement.

They developed monumental and highly pictographic hieroglyphs. As Woods and Woods (2011) state, “ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing combined pictures that stood for sounds with pictures that stood for objects or ideas” (p. 29). At the early stages, these symbolic visualizations on a solid and flat rock surface were carved by picking or incising. However, later hieroglyphic scripts, which were used by a minority of ancient Egyptians, produced a cursive derivative that became widely spread among the residents of Lower and Upper Egypt.

Along with the increase in the use of the written language, people started to utilize a lighter and more convenient writing media − papyrus. The invention of paper became in handy as “numbers of public works and courts of justice multiplied, movement of products and stone up and down the Nile in-creased, and censuses of men and animals grew in number” (Kilgour, 2014, p. 23). Nevertheless, as Mark (2016) states, since papyrus manufacturing costs were relatively high, it was primarily used for writing religious and government texts.

Still, compared to clay tablets and stone palettes, papyrus was a more ergonomic solution to the storage of enormous volumes of written data even though it was less enduring than the former and required care (Woods & Woods, 2011). It is possible to say that the ease of handling the papyri sources facilitated the further transmission of information from one culture to another.

According to Mark (2016), Papyrus was widely harvested since c. 6000 (during the Predynastic Period) and lasted until the end of the Roman Egypt era (c. 640 CE). As such, this type of paper was produced from plant fibers, and the process of its production was similar to the one used to make modern papers. As stated by Kilgour (2014), “the technology of the papyrus-roll system comprised five major components: papyrus rolls on which to write, inks for writing, palettes in which to keep the inks and the rushes with which to apply them, bookselling, and archives in which to organize the rolls” (p. 28).

Early papyrus scrolls can be regarded as first books as some of them comprised a comprehensive overview and in-depth depiction of one or a few subjects. For instance, Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus (4.68 meters in length and 33 centimeters in height), contained medical explanations of various types of wounds, injuries, diagnostic and treatment methods, and so on (Woods & Woods, 2011). Additionally, one of the most prominent and culturally significant ancient compositions, the Book of the Dead is the leading source of major Egyptian religious beliefs (Kilgour, 2014).

It is worth noticing that researchers discovered are a few editions of the given papyri source. In this way, it means that along with the evolution of writing, the technological advancement in the sphere of communication largely facilitated the development of complex systems of knowledge, as well as their storage, transmission, and preservation.

Development of Communication Technologies in the Greco-Roman World

Further significant advancements in the ancient communication system and technology occurred in ancient Greece. The Greek alphabet was the first to include vowels in history (Colvin, 2014). The given invention significantly helped facilitate the readability of texts which previously required interpreting complex visual symbols. It is worth noticing that the most widely used in the system of communication signs in the world, the Roman alphabet, was consequently derived from the Etruscan alphabet (800 BC), which, in its turn, was largely based on the Greek one (Woods & Woods, 2011).

The simplification of the alphabet provided ancient scholars and scientists even more opportunities for the expression of complex thoughts and knowledge. As Kilgour (2014) states, Greeks continued to enhance communication technologies and created such materials as parchment (1600 BC), sharp-tipped pens, and new inks. Compared to Egyptian papyrus, parchment made of untanned skins of animals was significantly superior in such properties as durability, flexibility, and ink reception. As a result, the given leather material played a major role in the development of the book. At the same time, the creation of such a new writing instrument as a pen allowed increasing the speed of writing. In this way, the written communication output had doubled since then.

Summary and Conclusion

As the findings of the literature review revealed, ancient communication was primarily oral, linear, and not recorded effectively. The pre-writing period is rather associated with the use of crude materials such as sound and light, or gestures and speech at the most. At the same time, the technology developed throughout antiquity required the implementation of intensive manual work and intellectual efforts because it was extremely difficult to operate such early systems of written communication as Egyptian hieroglyphs.

For this reason, during the early period of written communication technology emergence, its use tends to be time-consuming and not very efficient in terms of speed of message recording and transmission. However, the simplification of linguistic symbol systems and the creation of new Greek and Latin alphabets seem to improve communication effectiveness. Moreover, the invention of more enduring materials and instruments supporting writing productivity had only accelerated further technological progress.

In conclusion, it is possible to assume that the major prerequisite for the evolution of primitive communication signs and means into more elaborated systems, which people have nowadays, was the ongoing accumulation of new information and an increasing need to express more complex concepts and ideas. As stated by Buckley and Boudot (2017), the very notion of technology “consists of knowledge about how to modify our environment, passed from one generation to the next” (p. 2).

It means technology implies continual progress and advancement. The example of ancient communication technologies and materials discussed in the essay supports the given idea. It became apparent that primitive symbolic systems and means could not meet the changing communication needs. The evolution of communication technology from its ancient form was driven by the necessity to facilitate memorization of information and facts acquired from life and the need to enable a person to share this information and facts with other people, regardless of time and distance.


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