From the Ice Age to Instagram: Visual Storytelling Through the Ages

Muybridge first movie art of storytelling

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.

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Early History

162,000 BCE: The Use of Ochre

The pigment ochre, a type of iron oxide, is used in caves in Africa, according to South African archaeologists. However, it’s unclear whether the ochre is yet being used to create art.

[Source: Smithsonian]

38,800 BCE: El Castillo Cave in Spain

The world’s oldest known cave painting is a red disk on the wall at el Castillo Cave in Spain.

[Source: Smithsonian]

ca. 18,000 BCE: Lascaux Cave Paintings in France

These UNESCO World Heritage caves contain almost 2,000 unique figures — abstract images, human figures, and animals. These include 364 horses, 90 stags, and a 17-foot-long bull.

[Source: Bradshaw Foundation]

ca. 12,000 BCE: The Earliest Petroglyphs

Some of the world’s first petroglyphs are carved into rock in Akakus, Libya, today a UNESCO World Heritage site. Carvings depict humans going about their daily life, making music, and dancing. They also include depictions of giraffes, elephants, camels, and ostriches.

[Source: New World Encyclopedia]

1275 BCE: The Book of the Dead in Egypt

Egypt Book of the Dead Visual Storytelling

The Egyptian “Book of the Dead” combines images and text.

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.  

[Source: Khan Academy]

700 BCE: Storytelling on Greek Vases

Greek vase visual storytelling

Ajax and Achilles are depicted playing a game during the Trojan War on this amphora from the ancient Greek region of Attica.

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.

[Source: Khan Academy]

105 CE: The Invention of Paper

Ts’ai Lun invents paper during the Han Dynasty in China.

[Source: Ancient History Encyclopedia]

The Middle Ages & Early Modern Period

1041–1048: The Invention of Movable Type

Six hundred years before Johannes Gutenberg will invent the printing press in Europe, Bi Sheng — “a man of unofficial position,” according to one of his contemporaries — invents movable type in China.

[Source: Gizmodo]

1798: Lithography Makes Visual Art Reproducible

German inventor Alois Senefelder uses a block of porous limestone to produce the world’s first lithograph. Lithography will make it easier to mass-produce art and text.

[Source: Britannica]

The 19th Century

1827: The Beginning of Photography

Earliest photograph visual storytelling

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s “View from the Window at Le Gras” is the earliest photograph ever taken of a real-world scene.

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.

[Source: MozTeach]

1830s: Data-Driven Social Science

French lawyer André-Michel Guerry’s maps are among the first to use different levels of shade to visualize data. These maps focus on “moral statistics” — data around crime, illiteracy, and other aspects of social science. They therefore also achieve another historic first in their visualization of social science data.

[Source: Smithsonian]

1854: Data Visualization and the Science of Disease

Cholera deaths infographic visual storytelling

This 1854 data visualization shows how cholera deaths (represented by black bars) congregated around a particular water pump in London.

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.

[Source: Smithsonian]

1861: The First Color Photograph

Scottish physicist James C. Maxwell produces the first-ever photograph in color.

[Source: Biography]

1877: The First Movie

Muybridge first photograph visual storytelling

The first movie ever was created from a series of photographs taken by Eadweard Muybridge.

Eadweard Muybridge records the world’s first motion picture — a film of a running horse. The film is recorded to settle an argument about whether all four feet of a horse leave the ground simultaneously while it’s running.

[Sources: MozTeach, Britannica]

1884: The Origins of Television

German engineer Paul Gottlieb Nipkow invents the rotating disk that first makes mechanical televisions possible. Mechanical televisions will later be replaced by electronic televisions.

[Source: Britannica]

The 20th Century

1947: The First Video Game

The one-player “Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device” is invented for an analog computer. It is considered one of the first examples of interactive visual storytelling.

[Source: MozTeach]

1951: Computer for Sale

The Ferranti Mark I becomes the world’s first general-purpose, commercially sold computer. This same year, the UNIVAC 1 becomes the first to attract broad public attention.

[Source: ComputerHistory.org]

1957: The Origins of Augmented Reality

Sensorama augmented virtual reality

The Sensorama machine marked the beginning of augmented and virtual reality technology.

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.

[Sources: Interaction Design Foundation, Virtual Reality Society]

1972: The Arrival of the Video Game Console

Magnavox Odyssey visual stories

The Magnavox Odyssey was the first home video game system.

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.

[Source: National Museum of American History]

1975: Virtual Reality

US computer artist Myron Krueger’s Videoplace becomes the first virtual reality interface.

[Source: Interaction Design Foundation]

1994: The Internet Privatizes

The beginning of the internet as we know it kicks off when the US government begins to allow the private operation and maintenance of the internet.

[Source: New York Times]

1999: Emojis Emerge

Japanese artist Shigetaka Kurita creates the world’s first emoji — 176 of them, to be exact — for an early mobile web platform with mobile carrier DOCOMO in Japan.

[Source: Wired]

The 21st Century

2004: Facebook Is Founded

When Mark Zuckerberg launches Facebook in February of 2004, he is helping to revolutionize a whole new way of sharing visual content and stories.

[Source: Business Insider]

2012: The Rise of Oculus

Virtual reality company Oculus raises $2.5 million on Kickstarter. It will sell for $2 billion to Facebook just 2 years later.

[Source: TechCrunch]

2013: The Exploding Popularity of the Interactive Infographic

The most popular story of the year for the New York Times is an infographic visualizing different regional accents throughout the United States. The piece also includes an interactive questionnaire that helps the infographic locate viewers’ origins on a map.

[Source: Smithsonian]

2013: Google Glass

Google announces its augmented reality beta project, Google Glass.

[Source: Interaction Design Foundation]

2017: The Era of Video-Based Visual Storytelling

According to a report released by Cisco in 2019:

  • 59% of all mobile data traffic was video
  • 79% will be video by 2022
[Source: Cisco]

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.

Erin McCoy

Author Erin McCoy

Erin McCoy is director of content marketing and public relations at Killer Visual Strategies. She earned her BA in Spanish with minors in French and Russian, and holds 2 master’s degrees from the University of Washington: an MFA in creative writing and an MA in Spanish literature. She has won nearly 2 dozen awards in photojournalism, and has dedicated those skills to boosting Killer’s brand recognition and thought leadership in visual communication. Since Erin took on her marketing/PR role, Killer has been named a member of the Inc. 5000 for 4 years in a row; has been featured in such publications as Inc., Forbes, Mashable, and the Huffington Post; and has been invited to present at such conferences as SXSW and SMX Advanced.

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