What Impacts Have Systems of Communication Had Upon the Development of Human Societies


03 Oct 2016 19 Dec 2016

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The aim of this paper is to critically analyse communication and its development of human societies. It will scrutinise whether any form of symbolic behaviour was a form of communication. This essay will question some of the findings of the past through the examination of communicative works such as cave-art. Discussion of urbanism and religion as a means of communication with divine or supernatural powers will then follow. Writing as posited as one of Childe’s ten criteria as a cause of urbanism will be critically evaluated. To conclude, I will offer my perspective on the development of human societies having evaluated the evidence and expert views. So what is communication? Communication is derived from the Latin word 'communis' (Peters, 1999), meaning “to share”. Thus, communication is the activity of conveying information through the exchange of messages, information, and thoughts, as by signals, visuals, writing or behaviour. The history of communication dates back to ancient times, speech which revolutionized the human communication was developed some 200,000 years ago; symbols were developed about 30,000 years ago while writing about 7,000. Throughout the millennia, human societies underwent major changes in their social order where people lived 10,000 years ago in small, mobile groups which depended on wild plants and animals. Examples of those groups include but is not limited to those of the Yangzi river valley in East Asia and the Americas which underwent changes from hunter-gatherers to an organised society. It is these early examples of groups which domesticated local plant and animal species to forge a farming community and with the development of agriculture and sedentism, population growth soon followed. These farming societies transformed themselves into larger, more complex social systems characterised by cities, political states and class inequalities. As with civilisations such as those of Egyptian and Roman empires, rulers and dynasties rose and fell, and the potsherds and stone tools of archaeology made way for written documents. Without communication, the lives of human beings would be very different as it is critical for growing and maintaining everything around us. The relationship between communication and human society is ever-growing having achieved a huge growth in its partnership. Humans simply could not have achieve this kind of development and growth without the existence of communication. Within society, all relationships and social connections rely on communication and appreciate and understand its importance and with varying communication methods and processes, it gave a great boost to the development of human society. Communication as it is today is a continuing process as people strive to develop new and innovative communication methods and processes.

To fully appreciate the growth of communication, we need to look back to the beginning to

the stone age when communication was in its initial developmental stages. There were no languages, resultantly little communication processes were followed by humans. The swift development of human abilities made way for the development of communication and human society. Humans began to use signs and non-verbal communication to communicate with fellow humans such as runners, birds, arrows, smokes. As humans became more and more organized, different kinds of languages and communication methods were developed. Major developments during the Stone Age were:

  • Cave paintings
  • Petro glyphs
  • Pictograms
  • Ideograms

Later, during the Bronze Age, human beings invented writing which revolutionized the communication methods and processes, there began a new period of communication. Accepted examples of such writings are Egyptian hieroglyphs and the Indus Valley script (Tharoor 2009). By 2700 BC Egyptian writing had a set of some 22 hieroglyphs to represent syllables (Crabben 2011). Some of the prominent developments of these times are:

  • Writing
  • Alphabet
  • Paper

With the introduction of various form of communication, is the question whether symbolic behaviour is a form of communication? Communication and symbolic links seem to go hand in hand with features seen as symbolic objects such as daggers, warriors– some carrying weapons, axes, wheeled vehicles, houses, farm buildings and livestock. Other evidence presented is the rock-art of Valcamonica (Italy) and Southern Africa in which a number of symbolic representations were discovered. Southern-Africa in particular has cave-art of varying degrees of what I would consider a form of symbolism such examples include dancing women an various geometric forms. I believe that symbolic behaviour could be considered as a form of visual communication because a message is being conveyed irrespective of the media and form of communication. Not restricted to cave-art, symbolic behaviour is also seen through the construction of objects such as the 'sky-disk' and 'sun chariot'. The Nebra sky-disk depicts the sun, moon, 32 stars and two arcs, originally three. Its significance alludes any understanding of its significance, however, it does not detract from the fact that it is symbolic in nature and may have been used as an 'astronomical calculation tool to determine times of harvest' (Haughton, 2011). Whatever the significance of the disk, it is still one of symbolism. The final piece of symbolism lies with the Sun Chariot, similar in its astronomical representation of the sun and moon which again illustrates a form of symbolism in the form of a bronze-wheeled-model of a horse pulling a large disk. Not isolated to mere models of bronze, the discovery of burial practices and metallurgy to display prestige and cultural practices can also be considered as a form of symbolism. Unfortunately, no depiction of the latter practices are represented in the rock-art, suggesting that the presence of cave-art does not fully represent the full range of activities, but does not exclude the very fact that once again symbolism is represented through prestige. Symbolism was prominent on a global basis and in Southern Africa, rock-art had symbolic meanings to those who created them. The representation of these paintings were linked between the material and spirit world which in turn depicted shamans and the spirit world. I believe that any consideration into the varying forms of symbolic behaviour should be seen as a form of communication. In summary with regards to symbolism and communication, I am inclined to support the idea that symbolism is a form of communication which is reinforced by Childes' criteria for urbanism and the rise of civilisation coupled with the development of symbolic art (Perkins, 2013).

Cave or rock-art is known as the oldest form of communication and is the precious remnant of an ancient way of life which provides some of the oldest clues of cultures from long ago. Rock-art and art form or drawing style provides a recorded history of human thought patterns and behaviour. Insights into their socio-religious aspects as well as their ancient culture and myths can be gained and prove valuable into gaining an insight into their lives. Between 30,000 and 5,000 years ago, no written records existed except for cave-art and rock etchings. It was not until post 5,000 years that other types of written records came into existence. Rock-art is in my opinion considered a form of communication and message, whether simple or complex, is special but yet to be fully understood. It provides a small glimpse into the socio-religious aspects of these ancient neolithic cultures. A number of theoretical views and opinions have purported to explain rock-art, but in my view, I am inclined to suggest that rock-art simply portrays simple daily life. Another possible theory could be that of conveying a complex message about the shamans' journey and their altered state of consciousness, suggesting a true appreciation and understanding of ancient tribal life. An air of caution must be placed in assuming that the paintings produced in a specific tribal social and religious context within cave-art has any resemblance to the belief systems of modern Western society and therefore should not be gauged to such.

Any form of ritualistic, mythological or supernatural representations art is open to debate as to whether it is art or religion. The area surrounding art and its link to religion would be a difficult assumption to make as to view the work within a set context is to view the art in the same way as those who were around during that time period. As with any religious content, the interpretations are hypothetical and subjective based on the interpreter's ideals. However, the presence of animals may have been more of a symbolic vision of the world around them. This art could also be a way of communicating possible 'ritual practices' (Zorich, 2011) that may have taken place within the cave systems. There is a possible assumption that ritual practices taking place within the caves were a means of communication with divine or supernatural powers. The imagery of animals may have been viewed as sacred due to their physical strength indicating power. Throughout time there have been links with shamanism and rock art within the context of spiritualism. One such example is that of the Valcamonica figure which depicts a running man (Naquane, 2014), often identified as a shaman. The key controversy is that the art is a representation of the real world and with that consideration it questions its true purpose and functions. As with everything else in life, changes occur, additions are made to existing structures and art work; likewise with cave art by engraving over already existing work in addition to leaving existing engravings alone, signifies a meaning for those adding to the already present art. It is fair to surmise that maybe these images may have had a symbolic or religious function which in turn can be accepted as a form of communicating rituals and the idea of theology. To further support the theory, Scandinavian rock art is suggestive of ritual or mythological as well as associations with the supernatural. I truly believe that such interpretations are acceptable and should be viewed as a way of looking beyond an established civilisation to that of conducting oneself to a higher power, a deity perhaps? Further evidence has recently come to light of the possible religious or spiritual practices from the discovery of rock-art in the highlands (McKenzie, 2014). The discovery included a boulder decorated with ancient cup and ring marks which archaeologists believe may have been made for a number of reasons. Some of these reasons include ritualistic, astronomical or simply doodling. If we were to assume that it was ritualistic, it implies that there may have been a link with divine or supernatural powers. It is a safe assumption that with cave-art, a link between communication and the belief of divine and supernatural powers exists.

It is without a doubt that human communication is underpinned by a social survival imperative. In the words of Blakemore, Winston and Frith (2004)

'Humans crave the company of others and suffer profoundly if temporarily isolated from society'.

The above statement is indicative of the need to communicate hence with the spread of hunter-gatherers across various regions, communication took on differing forms. These ranged from non-verbal communication which consisted of possible facial expressions, tone of voice, body movement and stance which eventually emerged in conjunction with verbal communication within the hunter-gathers period. It is through the use of language as a symbolic form of communication to convey messages to one another but is not limited to just the verbal aspect of communicating. As previously mentioned, writing, drawing, painting and sculptures was and still is a form of communication, a graphical and yet symbolic method of communication. One asserts that the hunter-gathers of the time used various methods to communicate from non-verbal to verbal as well as art to project and record their beliefs and lifestyles.

The earliest form of urbanism appeared in the Near East (3rd Millennium BC), Warka, known from texts as the Sumerian city of Uruk (Mathews, 2013). Life in the City of Warka was marked by the appearance of well known cultural innovations such as the architecture of monumental portions, commemorative art and the use of a cylinder seal. Another innovation which involves one of Childes' ten criteria is that of writing which appeared during the late Uruk period and was considered the earliest form of writing. It can be implied that the presence of writing was not coincidental but one of relevance towards the formation of social organisation. I believe that writing is essential in maintaining any form of governance within a state organisation. My argument is that writing as it stands provides a method of record keeping which is essential for not only the organisation but also the administrative and social control of people living within an urban setting. If proven that the writing found at Uruk was indeed an integral part in urban life then it will be a safe assumption that the presence of writing was in effect consistent with governmental administration. However, I dispute this perspective since other societies have existed without the need for writing to maintain a society. One such society was that of the Incas. Not having a recognised writing system like the rest of the world, no carved stone, no papyrus or art, the Incas established and maintained a working empire proving that urbanism does not require a writing system to flourish. Having said that, the Incas did have a method of recording accounts, astronomical calculations and possibly their stories, this method involved the use of 'cords and knots' (K.K. Hurst, 2002), a complicated system but yet a record, nevertheless. Having considered the Incas and the use of the cord system as a possible means of conveying messages is in my opinion open to debate as to whether the use of knots in cords is a form of communication. Critical analysis of the communication adopted by the Incas does not provide a convincing argument therefore in my opinion that it is highly improbable the Incas possessed a system of writing. When taking into account that for urbanism to exist and thrive, a system of communication is required, be it writing or otherwise, the Inca civilisation as far as I am concerned refutes that theory. Would the Incas have adopted writing from the people of Warka? Due to the strong beliefs of the Incas and the significance of the cord system, I would assume the Incas would have refrained from doing so.

In concluding this paper, the true significance of these vast array of cave paintings discovered and possibly some yet to be discovered is and will remain elusive for now. I can conclude that the cave-art, some brilliant in comparison to the art work that we find today, reflects the development of 'symbolic life', and an important turning point in human evolution. This sudden burst is reminiscent of the 'big bang theory' but in this case it is the 'big bang theory' of the human mind. It is through the study of the cave-art that has drawn a possible link to a symbolic life and with further field study and analysis will push the theory and reveal a symbolic life from the past. I also believe that communication and its impact on past civilisations may not have had a major role to play just simply a system which was adopted for growth and control. Today, communication is a requirement for any country to succeed and flourish in the way of trade and finance as well as the setting down of laws. As we have come to know, the effect of communication is one of globalization, take communication away now and we are left with ignorance and loss of what we have to know as part of everyday life.

(2532 words)


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