I first saw this photo with a totally different caption and it meant absolutely zero to me. I couldn't figure out what I was supposed to be looking at. Then I checked out the other captions for the same photo and voilá! I saw the tree "ear" immediately.
The original photo still puzzles me. Actually, many of the Historical LOLs puzzle me--especially the photos. You have to wonder what in the world possessed some of them. But at least I understand this caption.
Context is what makes the difference. This is something I'm struggling with in my current work in progress as I portray the first meetings between two very different cultures. What makes perfect sense to one group is totally incomprehensible to the other. How to convey an idea across cultural lines?
Perhaps the best way is to place the action in context, using shared customs. There are, after all, some customs almost all cultures share. Eating, sleeping, childcare, food provision, shelter. From the most primitive to the highest technology we have those in common. Mimicking placing something in our mouth is a universally understood sign. So is placing your palms together under one cheek with your eyes closed.
So...I suppose I'll have to provide context for my characters or they may never come to an agreement. Communication will go by the wayside. Sigh. And my characters will be left standing in the bushes wondering what IS that woman doing to the tree?