Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Cave Paintings and Instant Memorials

People first started illustrating cave walls around 32,000 years ago. While there’s some debate as to their original purpose—decorative, religious or instructional—these petroglyphs (carvings) and pictographs (paintings) continue to fascinate us, providing a connection to early humans.

My brother’s family had to have their beloved dog put to sleep last week. Gretchen the golden was 13, a good age for a dog her size. Still, the parting was sad, as it always is.

I found out about it in the morning when I opened my Facebook page. Fifteen minutes earlier and 3000 miles away, my niece had just posted “R.I.P. Gretchen” followed by a picture of the old girl. I clicked on Comments to offer my quick condolences and was shocked that I wasn’t the first to leave a sentiment. In the time it took my niece to type a response to me, another friend of hers had posted her sympathies.

Now I’m no stranger to the instantaneous nature of the Internet. Still, the speed with which this impromptu memorial sprung up and continued throughout the day astonished me.

This got me thinking about how much communication has—and hasn’t—changed since humans first started etching scenes from their lives on cave walls.

Our technology is so sophisticated these days, it’s easy to forget that it’s built on our ancestors’ ingenuity. We always use our past as a ladder to the future. Yet we’re so busy looking up that we sometimes forget to appreciate where we’ve been.

So here’s a quick look at a few of the clever inventions that made our modern interactions possible.

As noted above, humans began communicating in a permanent form using sharp stone tools, lumps of charcoal and berry-based paints on cave walls. The walls weren’t exactly portable, so later civilizations created clay tablets and a stylus made out of bone or bronze to engrave them. Depicting whole scenes in art form was pretty time-consuming (and wouldn’t fit on the tablets), so somebody had the great idea to use symbols to communicate rudimentary ideas.

The never-ending quest to improve the day’s technology led to the invention of papyrus, parchment and eventually paper. To write on these surfaces, people moved from sharpened reeds and bamboo shoots to quill pens—which dominated for a thousand years before being replaced by fountain and then ballpoint pens. Of course, the development of inks accompanied these innovations. And to further speed along our written exchanges, humans shifted from symbol-based writing systems to alphabets.

In short order, we added typewriters, electricity, miniaturization, logarithms and iPhones to our communications arsenal. All of which brings us to today and our amazing ability to instantly commune with others about our losses, loves and lessons learned.

An online memorial to a family dog clearly demonstrates how much our tools have evolved. But it also shows that the reason we communicate—to forge a connection with our fellow humans—is the same as it ever was. We just use a Facebook wall instead of a cave wall.


  1. I come from the graphic design and communications field... to see the "industry" evolve from a cave painting wall to a wall in facebook, in just a few eloquent words, has me wondering what the wall in the future will look like.

  2. And one wonders how long this new wall will to take to evolve. Probably not 32,000 years, I'm guessing.

  3. you have a very cute dog...i love those big ears!

  4. Those were her awkward teenage ears! I figure she's cuter than me, hence her pic as the face of my blog.

  5. So easy, even a caveman can do it.

  6. I wish FB had an attention span of 32,000 seconds, but I love the point you made. Nice juxtaposition.