As I was finishing up the manuscript for The Back of the Napkin last year, I had a bunch of fun conversations with Will Weisser and his publicity team at Portfolio, brainstorming on the promotional copy for the book. We were all excited about how the book had come together and knew we were on to something powerful. There haven't been many business books about how to solve problems with pictures, so it was hard not to say, "Wow! This is a completely new way of thinking!"
We all knew that wasn't true, of course: people have been drawing since the dawn of time. (Maybe not businesspeople, but you never know.) Which got me wondering. How old is "visual thinking" anyway? Who were the first people to use pictures as a way of understanding the world? How far did the use of pictures predate written language?
I recalled from art history classes a couple vague facts about the famous cave paintings of Lascaux in France, but couldn't put those sketchy bison into any broader context. (And frankly, with a business book about to come out, the last thing I needed to lose focus by digging through pre-ancient history.)
So it was with snowballing fascination that I read last week's New Yorker article by Judith Thurman about the earliest cave painters. From the opening paragraph, something clicked in me: this wasn't just a story about some random proto-humans a zillion years ago scratching out animals on cave walls; this is OUR story.
As Thurman makes clear, nobody has any real idea who these cave painters were or why they were compelled to draw, but we do know that they -- forgive me, WE -- drew long before we wrote. And as Picasso said after viewing the paintings at Lascaux, "They've invented everything." That got me hooked.
As much as I loved the descriptions of the paintings, the debates about how they were drawn, and the academic battles about why, what really got me about the story was the description of time; more specifically, how close we really are to the earliest humans who drew.
When I read this paragraph, my mind was officially blown:
"Since recorded history began, around 3200 BC, with the invention of writing in the Middle East, there have been some two hundred human generations."
What?? Only 200 of generations of humans since the beginning of written history? How could that be? I thought history was a lot longer than that: the ancients, the Greeks, the Romans, the dark ages... you're telling me all that happened (*everything* happened?) in a number of generations I could count in less than a minute. That I had to see.
So I mapped it out. And here's what the length of recorded history looks like, generation by generation. (Click the image to enlarge.)
Then if we add in all the generations since the earliest cave paintings ever discovered (those of the Chauvet Caves, dated to 32,000 years ago), we see that there really haven't been all that many of us. (Click the image to enlarge.)
Solving problems with pictures isn't new. It's what we've always done. "Always" just turns out to be a lot shorter than I thought.