A Brief History Of Human Communication

From orality to literacy and back again

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. Sorry I'm resending this, the preview shows webp images but the email doesn't.

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.

So remember that next time you're feeling bored at a funeral and looking at your phone. Everything you do on your phone will disappear, but 100,000 years later, people will find our graves and remember this: we care for our dead. That's why it's important to go to funerals. It's the oldest and strongest form of communication.

2. Talking (Orality)

For most of human history and your own life, communication is talking. For 99.9% of human history, this was popular culture. This is what the scholar Walter Ong called a primary oral culture. An oral culture is based on sound. Ong says that in order to understand this, it's important to think about sound. Just say a word out loud and see how long it lasts.

Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy, 1982

Sound is interesting because it's always disappearing. Before you say the word 'sound', it's already gone. How did anyone build a culture around something that disappears?

People did it by telling great stories, repeating themselves constantly, and talking about humans, animals, and situations that everyone could understand. According to Ong, some characteristics of oral culture are:

  1. Repetition (telling the same parts of stories over and over again)
  2. Example: The Bible. The story of Jesus is told four separate times (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).
  3. Tradition (telling the same old stories over and over again)
  4. Example: The Ramayana. The Ramayana has been retold from across India to Thailand.
  5. Close to the lifeworld (telling stories with human-like creatures in them)
  6. Example: Hinduism: complicated concepts are explained using human-like gods and animals.
  7. Situations not abstractions (like Jesus's parables)
  8. Example: Jataka Stories: Buddhist philosophy is explained with simple stories.

In Sri Lanka we can see the change from oral to literal culture (from talking to writing) in the Mahavamsa. The Mahavamsa was written down, but it came from an oral culture and it directly talks about many of the things Ong was talking about. For example, the Mahavamsa was trying to say that it was better than the Dipavamsa, which it called repetitive. It still, however, talked about being handed down through tradition.