Whenever the term “media” or “communications” is mentioned, many of us envision the pervasive technology of today’s world. Students engaged in media studies may range further back historically and think of the newspaper over the past two hundred years, the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, or perhaps the origins of the alphabet in ancient Greece. Communication media, however, are older—much older. In this part we will look at key aspects of their early development, beginning with the symbolic use of material culture in the Old Stone Age.
What was the first communication medium? This question may be impossible to answer scientifically; however, it is not impossible to imagine. Almost as soon as our prehistoric ancestors made tools of wood, bone, and stone to help them physically adapt to a changing environment, they probably made “tools for thought” as well. Perhaps the earliest device of this kind was a simple stick, notched to indicate the number of deer in a nearby herd or some rocks or logs arranged to mark the importance of a given territory. What was important was the process. Humankind enlarged its sphere of communication (the process) by creating communications (the means or media of communication).
Communication is an exchange of information and messages. It is an activity. About one hundred thousand years ago, our early ancestors communicated through nonverbal gestures and an evolving system of spoken language. As their world became increasingly complex, they needed more than just the shared memory of the group to recall important things. They needed what is sometimes called an extrasomatic memory, a memory outside of the body. This led to the development of media to store and retrieve the growing volume of information. The microchip of today is one such medium and a direct descendant of our hypothetical notched stick.
The later prehistoric period, from about 50,000 to 10,000 B
. (standard usage now is B
.—Before the Christian Era—although most essays in our book use the older designation) has yielded impressive evidence of both communication and communications. The most striking examples are the exquisite cave paintings found in Southwestern Europe. Photographs of these images, such
as those in many art history books, do not do them justice. The paintings are not positioned for accessible viewing—in ways familiar to us—through vertical and horizontal alignment on a flat plane and are comparable to the artwork and modes of perception of Eskimos (now referred to as Inuit) studied in more recent times. Perhaps the closest we can come to experiencing the original impact of these works, short of touring the (mostly closed to the public) caves with a flickering oil lamp, is through Werner Hertzog’s breathtaking 2010 film, Caves of Forgotten Dreams
, which was originally shot and illuminated using a special three-dimensional process.
Eventually communications moved beyond the image and object making of the Old Stone Age (Paleolithic) to a more settled and less nomadic life. Hunting gave way to agriculture, which gave rise to the New Stone Age (Neolithic). With it came a new form of communications, writing. The beginnings of this transformation are outlined in the next essay by Denise Schmandt-Besserat. She bases her argument not on the discovery of new archeological remains, but through a reinterpretation of previous finds in a new way. Her analysis covers a period from about 10,000 to 4,000 B.C. and covers the early rise of the great writing-dependent Near Eastern civilizations in Mesopotamia and Egypt.
Schmandt-Besserat provides compelling evidence for her contention that prior to the actual emergence of writing, several Old World societies in the Near East were recording economic transactions through the use of fired clay tokens one to three centimeters in size. Readers will be shown some intriguing archeological detective work as she comments on traditional interpretations of these artifacts as charms, toys, or tools and then suggests an alternative communications view. She notes that many of the tokens resemble characters known as ideograms, which are conventionalized signs that do not look like what they represent (a character that looks like what it represents is known as a pictogram). Ideograms became the basis of the world’s first full-fledged writing system, Sumerian, which arose in 3500 B.C. Thus, if one accepts her hypothesis, the tokens were an abstract form of three-dimensional writing in response to social and economic changes necessitating a more complex way of life: the birth of civilization.
Our next excerpt, by Harold Innis, deals with what happened in the realm of communications and culture after the establishment of empires in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Innis (1894–1952) was a Canadian political economist turned communication theorist. His ideas about the importance of communication, acquired when he studied at the University of Chicago, surfaced periodically in his early economic writings. However, it was the works he produced shortly before his death, Empire and Communications (1950) and The Bias of Communication (1951), which marked his emergence as our first media historian. More than any other twentieth-century figure, Innis argued that this field merits disciplinary or sub-disciplinary status. Although he explored almost every facet of the communications/history question, the bulk of his project deals with the role of media in the organization of ancient empires and early Western Civilization.
Innis elaborated his history of communication around a series of core concepts, several of which are used in the excerpt we have included. Perhaps the most significant one pertains to time and space. Innis argued that each of the major Old World civilizations had a specific cultural orientation that was temporal or spatial. This orientation derived in part from the nature and use of the dominant medium it employed. For example, stone in ancient Egypt was a durable “time-biased” medium, favoring a centralized absolute government of divine kingship. This bias was further evident in the use of hieroglyphic writing to produce astonishingly accurate calendars, around which the agricultural cycle pivoted. With the coming of papyrus, a light portable “space-biased”
medium suitable for administration over distance, the orientation of Egypt changed. A priestly class expanded its power as the acquisition of new territories gave rise to an extended empire needing an administrative bureaucracy versed in the new communications.
Our next selection, by Marcia and Robert Ascher, deals with an area of history largely ignored until recently by media history—ancient New World civilizations. The Aschers focus on the Incas of ancient Peru, which, unlike other New World civilizations—the Maya and Aztec, for example—did not have writing. But isn’t writing essential to civilization and a complex state level of organization? Ascher and Ascher debunk this prevalent misconception. They convincingly show that it is not writing per se which allows for civilization, but some medium for the keeping of records that can function in an efficient and comprehensive manner. The quipu served this purpose among the Incas of ancient Peru. It was a series of cords using different length, thickness, and colors that could be knotted and braided. Each of these elements constituted information, the kind used to record crop production, taxation, a census, and other kinds of information essential to the bureaucratic maintenance of an expanding empire.
An intriguing point relevant to the essay by the Aschers, and the one preceding it by Innis, is that the quipu, a light, portable medium, was suitable for administration over distance and therefore is a classic example of Innis’s notion of a space-biased medium. Although Innis did not consider the Incas, Ascher and Ascher were influenced by his work, and their research extends this useful concept.
In our final selection, Andrew Robinson outlines out some of the issues, many still unresolved, in the relationship between earlier systems of three-dimensional accounting, such as the tokens studied by Schmandt-Besserat, and the later development of two-dimensional systems of ideo-grams and alphabets that characterize the evolution of writing worldwide. He also explores the controversy about the relationship between written and spoken language systems and the ways in which the linkage between written and spoken forms (logography and phonography) varies widely from language to language. Robinson goes on to raise the question of how globalization today might push the demand for new forms of communication (he points to the growing use of pictograms in public spaces) that are independent of both spoken and written languages. Here he shows how some of the principles used in ancient scripts, such as hieroglyphs, are still with us in everything from road signs to computer keyboards.
It is the nature of archaeological research to deal with data and their interpretation…. I use the facts as well as the hypotheses I have presented on the token system to reflect more broadly on the significance of tokens with respect to communication, social structures, and cognitive skills.
[This reading] deals with the place of tokens among other prehistoric symbolic systems. After presenting relevant aspects of symbolism from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic period, I will analyze what the tokens owed to their antecedents, how they revolutionized the use of symbols, and how they presaged writing.
Symbols and Signs
Symbols are things whose special meaning allows us to conceive, express, and communicate ideas. In our society, for example, black is the symbol of death, the star-spangled banner stands for the United States of America, and the cross for Christianity.
Signs are a subcategory of symbols. Like symbols, signs are things that convey meaning, but they differ in carrying narrow, precise, and unambiguous information. Compare, for example, the color black, the symbol standing for death, with the sign “I.” Black is a symbol loaded with a deep but diffuse significance, whereas “I” is a sign that stands unequivocally for the number “one.” Symbols and si...