A Brief History Of Human Communication

From orality to literacy and back again

indi.ca

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Illustration of the oldest known burial in Africa, communicating across 80,000 years that this child was loved

This is a lecture I gave to a group of young people in a political training academy we run in Sri Lanka.

Humans have communicated for hundreds of thousands of years. Most of that communication was NOT through social media, TV, or even writing. It is important to understand this deep history of communications to understand anything today.

In this article we will talk briefly about four stages of human communication.

  1. Ritual
  2. Talking
  3. Writing
  4. Talking Again

1. Ritual

What’s the oldest communication? What’s older than all literature, art, and stories? What has communicated across billions of people and hundreds of thousands of years? It’s funerals.

Buried here is a three-year old child. Nearly 80,000 years ago, this child’s family carefully wrapped them in cloth, put their head on a pillow, and laid them to rest safely in a cave. This was a funeral ritual. The fact that they gathered to do it makes it ritual communication. The fact that we’re talking about it now makes it incredibly powerful. The message is simple but strong. We loved this child.

This is the power of ritual, specifically ritual burial. The earliest evidence for humanity isn’t art, it’s these ritual burials. Instead of just abandoning bodies, we take care of them, we clothe them, we even bury them with precious goods. Funeral rituals are the strongest form of communication known to humans. Take, for example, pyramids.

A pyramid is just a giant funeral ritual. They told everyone in Egypt that this person was important, and they still communicate today, thousands of years later. This is the amazing power of ritual communication.

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indi.ca

Indrajit (Indi) Samarajiva is a Sri Lankan writer. Follow me at www.indi.ca, or just email me at indi@indi.ca.