History of Symbols

The basis of all communication is through symbols. Dating back to prehistoric times and the first humans, we are able to see symbols reflect in cave paintings. Language itself is merely a variety of symbols combined to create words or characters.

Dating back 100,000 years, the first humans first used symbols as a way to express identity. Our ancestors would use jewelry and other adornments to represent social standing as well as membership within certain groups or tribes. Then, around 77,000 years ago humans began to use symbols as a form of recording information. Objects analyzed by historians around this era would become more systematic. These new findings suggest that symbols have transitioned from just decoration to actual information gathering. The first known language–which as of now is either Sumerian or Egyptian–would be developed in 3200 BC.

By 17,000 years ago, human advancement allows us to develop all the “major representational techniques”, from drawing and painting, to sculpture and ceramics.  

By the end of the third century, major symbols like the Christian Fish begin to hold greater meaning. Created during the time where many Christians were being persecuted, the symbols were created to help secret Christians find their people. It was said that a believer would draw the upper half of the fish to test if their peer would finish the bottom half.

Egyptian hieroglyphics also have a great impact on history, having largely influenced the English alphabet that we know today. Some historians even believe that hieroglyphics are the root of all alphabets in the world.

Fast forwarding to medieval Europe, the coat of arms represents the first mainstream symbol to depict family lineage. These symbols have later evolved into the different flags from countries we see today.

Today symbols are seen everywhere from apps to logos, to fashion.



The symbols I will be using as inspiration for my designs will be the crane, more specifically the crane symbol in Chinese/Asian culture.

In Chinese culture, the crane is celebrated as the prince of all feathered creatures. The embodiment of longevity and peace, it is second only to the phoenix. In ancient China, crane motifs were used on the robes of civil officials to depict their ranks.

There are four types of cranes in Chinese mythology: White, black, blue and yellow. While the colors are important, it is better to look toward their poster and setting to understand meaning. “A crane that is shown with its wings stretched out and one leg raised stands for longevity. When it is shown under a pine tree near a spotted deer, it symbolizes a prolonged life. One that is shown among peony flowers stands for prosperity and longevity while one that is shown with lotus flowers symbolizes purity and longevity.

If a Chinese crane is shown flying towards the sun, it signifies a desire for social advancement. A crane that is shown perched on a rock and looking at the sun stands for an important authority who can see everything. Two cranes walking or flying together is the ultimate symbol of longevity.

Since cranes fly in the clear blue sky above the dusty earth, they are also considered symbols of cleanliness and purity. When a Taoist priest is on his deathbed, people say that he is turning into a feathered crane. Many Chinese still believe that cranes carry their spirit to heaven after they die.”




“Symbols Influence on History.” Ancient-Symbols.com. Accessed September 7, 2018.


Smithsonian Institution. “What Does It Mean to Be Human?” Smithsonian. Accessed September 7, 2018.


“What Are the Oldest Languages on Earth?” Taleninstituut Nederland. Last modified November 14, 2016.

   Accessed September 7, 2018. https://taleninstituut.nl/en/


“History of Cranes in Chinese Art.” Nazmiyal Collection. Accessed September 14, 2018 https://nazmiyalantiquerugs.com/blog/cranes-chinese-art-symbol-meaning/.




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