Emoji have been extensively compared to a modernized version of Paleolithic cave paintings, estimated to be over 17,300 years old. Homo sapiens emerged on the African landscape 200,000 years ago but, leaving behind no archaeological record of the brain nor the development of our cognitive abilities, we look to abstract artistic relics to determine how our wiring has changed over time. The pictograms of horses and stags found at Lascaux were the first real shift in using visuals to represent larger abstract ideas, purportedly memorializing past hunts or shamanic ritual instruction, along with 32 geometric shapes ranging from dots to circles. Despite the low number of geometric shapes created over the span of 30,000 years, each symbol had a distinctive usage pattern.
Paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger explains that stenciled hands appear at less than 20% of the sites and were very common before fading out of use at the end of the Ice Age, while dots and lines appear less than 75% of the time. Tectiforms (roof-shaped symbols), however, only appear in the Dordogne and Huesca regions of France between 13,000 and 17,000 years ago and seem to have been a clan sign used regionally only. The fact that the symbol is not found anywhere else points to either a trade network for goods such as flint or obsidian between the two places or a tribal relocation, perhaps through intermarriage. The significance of the Paleolithic comparison is in the experimentation with visual marks which enables us to create a new kind of typology.
Fast forward to 5,500 years ago, the Sumerians created the cuneiform writing system to communicate using pictographs. Cuneiforms use a wedge-based tool or reed to mark wet clay. Dr. Kate Wiles of the excellent linguistics podcast Allusions explains that initially, the language was used for tracking bartering of livestock and the yearly agricultural harvest. Wiles gives the example of shipping three cows, a goat, and a bale of hay, and knowing that they arrived at the other end by using the shorthand system. Eventually, graphemes, the smallest units of written language, became more abstract and helped expand our means of self-expression, much like emoticons were combined creatively to form new meanings. The Sumerian cuneiform system was in use for 3,000 years, on par in cultural significance with the Roman alphabet.
Perhaps the greatest historical analog to emoji has been the Egyptian hieroglyphic system, which is the subject of multiple uninspired articles by anxious journalists insisting that we are evolving backwards and we ought to stick to the language of Shakespeare. Bangor University linguist Vys Evans explains that “as a visual language emoji has already far eclipsed hieroglyphics, its ancient Egyptian precursor which took centuries to develop.” Hopefully that will serve as some reassurance that if we have eclipsed Egyptian civilization, surely we can’t be too far in the perceived regression spouted by hyperbolic emoji detractors…
The comparison to ancient hieroglyphics, as with the Mayan hieroglyph system used from 250 BC to the 1500s, is inevitable in that they rely on a series of small symbols to express a complete idea rather than phonetic sounds, and their emotional and cultural assessment is subject to interpretation. Mayan hieroglyphs were used to convey historical, literary, religious, and mythological information, as well as a complex mathematical knowledge. Fittingly enough, the Unicode Consortium has been awarded the Script Encoding Initiative grant to include Mayan hieroglyphs as Unicode characters by 2017.
Finally, emoji is similar to written Chinese and its pictorial origins spanning 3,500 years. By 1,000 BC, around 3,000 characters had been created primarily to record oracle predictions on turtoise shells and cow bones. Some Chinese characters which were later adapted to Japanese were visually modeled on familiar objects, most notably 木 (ki) which is a pictograph of a tree, 人 (hito) which looks like a person from the side, and 山 (yama) which shows a series of mountains.
To conclude, emoji is a logogramatic system, where a concept rather than a sound is represented pictorially, with comparable historical examples ranging from the Stone Age cave paintings and Sumerian cuneiform to ancient hieroglyphics and the Chinese written system.