Scientists claim to have discovered a "prehistoric version of Facebook" used by ancient tribes to communicate with each other. After analyzing over 3000 rock art images in Sweden and Russia, Mark Sapwell and his team from Cambridge University concluded that the sites functioned like an "archaic related stories version" of social networks where users shared thoughts and emotions and gave stamps of approval to other contributions – very similar to today's Facebook like.
Using analytical software the scientists compared the imagery over large areas – adding and taking off layers to create a sense of how people built on existing images. Carved from 4000 B.C. to 600 B.C., the rock art depicts people, animals, boats and hunting scenes. It was created by generations of semi-nomadic people, who lived more inland in winter to hunt elk, and then occupied areas closer to coasts and rivers to fish.
According to Mark Sapwell, a Ph.D. archaeology candidate at Cambridge University, the rock art sites were highly visible landmarks where passing travelers would take notice of the traces of people who came before them, adding their own mark on the world.
"The rock art we see today is the result of a culmination of many repeated acts of carving, each responding to each other over time. Like a Facebook status invites comment, the rock art appears very social and invites addition – the way the variations of image both mirror and reinterpret act as a kind of call and response between different packs of hunters across hundreds – even thousands – of years." Sapwell said in a statement.
Rock art found at the Swedish site and a computer simulation. This unusual carving is not much clustered with other images. Similar to a Facebook post without comments. Credit: Mark Sapwell.
The rock art ranged from groups of a few images to entire panels with over 500 images. Larger clusters of images represented a greater response and conversation between people. For example, in earlier periods (around 4000-3500 B.C.), a silhouette style of elk image is almost always seen among large clusters and rarely in isolation.
"One exciting part of the study is that the preference towards these popular images change through time. A very big change at the images in Sweden is the shift from elk to boat images, as if the 'topic to talk about' shifted from land to water," Sapwell said.
The shift is dated to around 2000-1800 B.C., a time when travel and long-distance exchange between communities become more important. Another remarkable find is the application of hybrid imagery (for example a half-man half elk, or half-man half-boat), which was tried out in the early periods, but became less popular from around 3500 B.C.
"So generally, what we see in these landscapes are very interesting cases where through prehistory, particular themes in everyday life become worth commenting on. A little like the fashions of Facebook comments, these topics are seen to fall in and out of favor," Sapwell said.
According to Sapwell, the huge concentrations of rock images attracted much interest because their social importance was well understood by the people who made and read them.
"Like today, people have always wanted to feel connected to each other – this was an expression of identity for these very early societies, before written language," Sapwell said.
Apparently we have been practicing social 'liking' and 'commenting' behavior for much longer than we realized. This may explain the success and rapid embracement of digital social networks like Facebook and Twitter, although we shouldn't be surprised if in a few centuries, archaeologist will be studying the then abandoned Facebook ruins to learn about our lives and society.