Visual storytelling is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the types of visual storytelling you see in everything from infographics to social media posts to paintings are more ancient than any other form of nonverbal human communication. Visual storytelling provides our most ancient insights into human culture — insights far older than written communication.
When did visual storytelling begin, and how has it changed over the millennia? Many of the ways we tell stories today are dependent upon our most popular communication and entertainment technologies, from video games to the internet. The exponential growth of web-based communication, platforms, tools, and interfaces has produced perhaps the most significant revolution in visual storytelling in the history of the world.
In this post, however, we’ll begin thousands of years ago, with the earliest examples of visual storytelling known to humans. We’ll then trace just a few of the most important moments in the history of visual storytelling to our present day.
162,000 BCE: The Use of Ochre
37,900 BCE: Leang Timpuseng Cave in Indonesia
Hand stencils and animal paintings, including one of a babirusa (a type of pig found in Indonesia), comprise the world’s oldest known figurative art, located on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. Hand stencils appear among the oldest cave paintings in Europe, as well.
Combined, these images tell some of the story of how these ancient people lived and what they considered important enough to document. Interestingly, a trend found in both Europe and Asia is that painters were “moved to depict larger, more daunting and impressive animals than the ones they frequently ate,” as Jo Marchant explains in Smithsonian. That is, as famed anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss believed, they painted animals that represented loftier, more inspirational stories than their daily reality. Storytelling as we know it today is very much the same.
ca. 18,000 BCE: Lascaux Cave Paintings in France
— Bradshaw Foundation (@BradshawFND) September 12, 2016
ca. 12,000 BCE: The Earliest Petroglyphs
1275 BCE: The Book of the Dead in Egypt
In what scholars call The Book of the Dead, drawings and hieroglyphic writing combine to tell the story of the judgment of Hunefer, the ancient Egyptian scribe in whose tomb this papyrus scroll was discovered. He is judged worthy of entering the afterlife. Aspects of this painting are similar to those from thousands of years earlier in the Old Kingdom.
700 BCE: Storytelling on Greek Vases
The technique of portraying figures in black silhouettes on an orange clay background is developed in Corinth. Vases in this style will be used to tell some of the most important stories in Greek mythology.
500: Illuminated Manuscripts
The earliest illuminated manuscripts appear in Western Europe. These texts combine colorful and intricate illustrations with text to tell stories in the Christian tradition.
1041–1048: The Invention of Movable Type
1798: Lithography Makes Visual Art Reproducible
1827: The Beginning of Photography
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, a French inventor, takes the world’s first photograph of a scene in the real world. The process is, at the time, called heliography.
1830s: Data-Driven Social Science
1854: Data Visualization and the Science of Disease
British physician John Snow’s map of a cholera epidemic pinpoints a Broad Street water pump as a major source of the disease. Infections abate after the pump is closed. The success of this effort will later serve as crucial evidence that disease is spread by contact with bacteria.
1861: The First Color Photograph
1884: The Origins of Television
1951: Computer for Sale
1957: The Origins of Augmented Reality
Cinematographer Morton Heilig’s Sensorama, which shares vibrations and smells with the viewer in addition to sights and sounds, is the first augmented reality device. His next invention, the Telesphere Mask (1960), will be the first head-mounted display.
1972: The Arrival of the Video Game Console
The Magnavox Odyssey becomes the world’s first home video game system, beating the much more successful Atari to the punch by just a few months.
1994: The Internet Privatizes
2010: Instagram Is Founded
Within one year of social media platform Instagram’s emergence, 500,000 people will be signing up every week.
2013: The Exploding Popularity of the Interactive Infographic
The way people produce and share visual content could not be more different from when the first peoples produced cave drawings in ochre and charcoal tens of thousands of years ago. But the motivation, surprisingly, seems to have changed very little. Visual storytelling helps us share our aspirations and inspiration — what most captures our imagination and what we hope to achieve. If this hasn’t changed since the era of cave paintings, it’s unlikely we’ll see it change anytime soon.