Prehistoric Word Balloons – “Speech-Breath”

I was reading a little article in Archaeology Magazine and learned that archaeologists now believe that prehistoric cave painters attempted to incorporate graphic depictions of sound into some of their works.

The earliest example comes from the Chauvet Cave made around 36,000 years ago. A series of read dots emanate from a lion’s mouth which is now believed to be a visual depiction of the lion’s roar.

According to the archaeologist Carolyn Boyd, Mesoamerica has the greatest use of graphic iconography used to depict sound. The focus of her research is on the Lower Pecos Canyon Lands of Texas. The art in this valley comes from about 1700 BCE, which makes it the oldest art in the Americas to depict sound visually. Boyd and others refer to this iconography as “speech-breath” and it is shown emanating from human and animal figures alike. Boyd posits that it may be speech, sound, breath, or perhaps even “vital forces.” But the fact that the lines and dots often emerge from the figures’ mouths makes it look a lot like speech balloons in comics.

from Archaeology, photo by Carolyn Boyd

All of this reminds me a lot of Will Eisner’s theory about speech balloons.

from page 26 of Comics & Sequential Art by Will Eisner

He thought that word balloons may have come from seeing exhaled breath. Whatever the inspiration, the goal, as with the Pecos Valley artists, is to make the invisible visible, to make sound graphic.

I’ve read critics who claim that this act of making sound visual is unique to comics, but apparently human beings have been doing it for a very long time.


works cited:

Boyd, Carolyn E., and Ashley Busby. “Speech-Breath: Mapping the Multisensory Experience in Pecos River Style Pictography.” Latin American Antiquity, vol. 33, no. 1, 2022, pp. 20–40.

Eisner, Will. Comics & Sequential Art. Poorhouse Press, 1985.

Powell, Eric A. “Speak Memories.” Archaeology Magazine. Archaeological Institute of America. July.August 2022.

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