The History of Writing
The First “Written” Communication
We have tried to document our existence with pictures and other markings.
The First “Written” Words
Although spoken language is believed to have developed tens of thousands of years ago, the written word emerged much later, as hunter-gatherers developed more permanent agrarian societies.
Some 9,000 years ago, the Sumerians invented counting tokens. These simple stamps were inscribed with pictures that represented the objects to be itemized.
They could be impressed in clay to document a record of land, grain, or cattle ownership.
These pictographs became more stylized as scribes began drawing them with a wedge-shaped stylus made of reeds.
This script is now known as cuneiform, our first written language.
The next step occurred in Egypt, sometime toward the end of the fourth millennium B.C.
Unlike cuneiform, which depicted individual objects, hieroglyphics represented sounds.
This major advance, called a “one-sign, one-sound” system of writing, is regarded as the first alphabet.
Language developed elsewhere, too.
Cultures with no apparent connection to the Near East — in China, the Indus valley, and much later, the Olmecs and Mayans of Mesoamerica — developed their own advanced alphabets.
Whether these arose independently or were influenced by existing languages is still a matter of fierce debate among scholars.
The history of writing traces the development of expressing language by letters or other marks.
In the history of how writing systems have evolved in different human civilizations, more complete writing systems were preceded by proto-writing, systems of ideographic or early mnemonic symbols (symbols or letters that make remembering them easier).
True writing, in which the content of a linguistic utterance is encoded so that another reader can reconstruct, with a fair degree of accuracy, the exact utterance written down, came next. It is distinguished from proto-writing, which typically avoids encoding grammatical words and affixes, making it more difficult or even impossible to reconstruct the exact meaning intended by the writer unless a great deal of context is already known in advance. One of the earliest forms of written expression is cuneiform.
Inventions of writing
The invention of writing was long thought to have one single origin, a theory named “monogenesis”.
Scholars believed that all writing originated in ancient Sumer (in Mesopotamia) and spread throughout the world from there via a process of cultural diffusion.
According to this theory, the concept of representing language by using writing, though not necessarily the specifics of how such a system worked, was passed on by traders or merchants traveling between geographical regions.
However, the discovery of the scripts of ancient Mesoamerica, far away from Middle Eastern sources, proved that writing could be invented independently.
Scholars now recognize that writing may have independently developed in at least four ancient civilizations: Mesopotamia (between 3400 and 3100 BC), Egypt (around 3250 BC), China (2000 BC), and lowland Mesoamerica (by 650 BC).
Regarding Egypt, several scholars have argued that “the earliest solid evidence of Egyptian writing differs in structure and style from the Mesopotamian and must therefore have developed independently. The possibility of ‘stimulus diffusion’ from Mesopotamia remains, but the influence cannot have gone beyond the transmission of an idea.”
Regarding China, ancient Chinese Characters, are an independent invention because there is no evidence of contact between ancient China and the literate civilizations of the Near East, and because of the distinct differences between the Mesopotamian and Chinese approaches to logography and phonetic representation.
Debate surrounds the Indus Script of the Bronze Age, Indus Valley civilization, the Ronorongo script of the Easter Island, and the Vinca Symbos, dated around 5,500 BCE. All are undeciphered, and so it is unknown if they represent authentic writing, proto-writing or something else.
The Sumerian archaic (pre-cuneiform) writing and Egyptian hieroglyphs are generally considered the earliest true writing systems, both emerging out of their ancestral proto-literate symbol systems from 3400–3100 BC, with the earliest coherent texts from about 2600BC. The Proto-elamite script is also dated to the same approximate period.
Symbolic communication systems are distinguished from “writing systems” in that one must usually understand something of the associated spoken language to comprehend the text.
In contrast, symbolic systems, such as information signs, painting, maps, and mathematics, often do not require prior knowledge of a spoken language.
Every human community possesses language, a feature regarded by many as an innate and defining condition of humanity.
However, the development of writing systems, and their partial supplantation of traditional oral systems of communication, have been sporadic, uneven, and slow. Once established, writing systems on the whole change more slowly than their spoken counterparts and often preserve features and expressions that no longer exist in the spoken language.
There are considered to be three writing criteria for all writing systems.
- The first is that writing must be complete. It must have a purpose or some sort of meaning to it. A point must be made or communicated in the text.
- Second, all writing systems must have some sort of symbols that can be made on some sort of surface, whether physical or digital.
- Lastly, the symbols used in the writing system must mimic spoken word/speech, in order for communication to be possible.
The greatest benefit of writing is that it provides the tool by which society can record information consistently and in greater detail, something that could not be achieved as well previously by the spoken word. Writing allows societies to transmit information and share knowledge.
An ancient Mesopotamian poem gives the first known story of the invention of writing:
Because the messenger’s mouth was heavy and he couldn’t repeat (the message), the Lord of Kulaba pattes some clay and put words on it, like a tablet. Until then, there had been no putting words on clay.— Sumerian epic poem Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta. Circa 1800 BC.
Scholars make a reasonable distinction between preHistory and history of early writing but have disagreed concerning when prehistory becomes history and when proto-writing became “true writing.”
The definition is largely subjective. Writing, in its most general terms, is a method of recording information and is composed of graphemes, which may, in turn, be composed of glyphs.
The emergence of writing in a given area is usually followed by several centuries of fragmentary inscriptions. Historians mark the “historicity” of a culture by the presence of coherent texts in the culture’s writing system(s).
The invention of writing was not a one-time event but was a gradual process initiated by the appearance of symbols possibly first for cultic purposes.
A conventional “proto-writing to true writing” system follows a general series of developmental stages:
- Picture writing system: glyphs (simplified pictures) directly represent objects and concepts. In connection with this, the following substages may be distinguished:
- Mnemonic: glyphs primarily as a reminder.
- Pictographic: glyphs directly represent an object or a concept such as (A) chronological, (B) notices, (C) communications, (D) totems, titles, and names, (E) religious, (F) customs, (G) historical, and (H) biographical.
- Ideographic: graphemes are abstract symbols that directly represent an idea or concept.
- Transitional system: graphemes refer not only to the object or idea that it represents but to its name as well.
- Phonetic system: graphemes refer to sounds or spoken symbols, and the form of the grapheme is not related to its meanings. This resolves itself into the following substages:
- Verbal: grapheme (logogram) represents a whole word.
- Syllabic: grapheme represents a syllable.
- Alphabetic: grapheme represents an elementary sound.
Literature and writing
The history of literature begins with the history of writing, but literature and writing, though obviously connected, are not synonymous. The very first writings from ancient Sumer by any reasonable definition do not constitute literature.
The same is true of some of the early Egyptian hieroglyphics and the thousands of ancient Chinese government records.
Scholars have disagreed concerning when written record-keeping became more like literature, but the oldest surviving literary texts date from a full millennium after the invention of writing.
The earliest literary authors known by name are Ptahhotep (who wrote in Egyptian) and Enheduanna (who wrote in Sumerian), dating to around the 24th and 23rd centuries BC, respectively.
The first writing systems of the Early Bronze Age were not a sudden invention. Rather, they were a development based on earlier traditions of symbol systems that cannot be classified as proper writing, but have many of the characteristics of writing.
These systems may be described as “proto-writing.” They used ideographic or early mnemonic symbols to convey information, but it probably directly contained no natural language.
These systems emerged in the early Neolithic period, as early as the 7th millennium BC, and include:
- The Jiahu symbols found carved in tortoise shells in 24 Neolithic graves excavated at Jiahu, Henan province, northern China, with radiocarbon dates from the 7th millennium BC.  Most archaeologists consider these not directly linked to the earliest true writing.
- Vinča symbols, sometimes called the “Danube script” – are a set of symbols found on Neolithic era (6th to 5th millennia BC) artifacts from the Vinča culture of Central Europe and Southeastern Europe.
- The Dispilio Tablet of the late 6th millennium may also be an example of proto-writing.
- The Indus script, which from 2600 BCE to 1900 BCE was used for extremely short inscriptions.
Even after the Neolithic, several cultures went through an intermediate stage of proto-writing before they used proper writing.
The “Slavic runes” from the 7th and 8th centuries AD, mentioned by a few medieval authors, may have been such a system.
The quipu of the Incas (15th century AD), sometimes called “talking knots,” may have been of a similar nature. Another example is the pictographs invented by Uyaquk before the development of the Yugtun syllabary for the Central Alaskan Yup’ik language in about 1900.
Bronze Age writing
Writing emerged in many different cultures in the Bronze Age.
Examples are the cuneiform writing of the Sumerians, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Cretan hieroglyphs, Chinese logographs, Indus script, and the Olmec script of Mesoamerica. The Chinese script likely developed independently of the Middle Eastern scripts around 1600 BC. The pre-Columbian Mesoamerican writing systems (including Olmec and Maya scripts) are also generally believed to have had independent origins. It is thought that the first true alphabetic writing was developed around 2000 BC for Semitic workers in the Sinai by giving mostly Egyptian hieratic glyphs Semitic values (see History of the alphabet and Proto-Sinaitic alphabet). The Ge’ez writing system of Ethiopia is considered Semitic. It is likely to be of semi-independent origin, having roots in the Meroitic Sudanese ideogram system. Most other alphabets in the world today either descended from this one innovation, many via the Phoenician alphabet, or were directly inspired by its design. In Italy, about 500 years passed from the early Old Italic alphabet to Plautus (750 to 250 BC), and in the case of the Germanic peoples, the corresponding time span is again similar, from the first Elder Futhark inscriptions to early texts like the Abrogans (c. AD 200 to 750).
The original Sumerian writing system derives from a system of clay tokens used to represent commodities.
By the end of the 4th millennium BC, this had evolved into a method of keeping accounts, using a round-shaped stylus impressed into soft clay at different angles for recording numbers.
This was gradually augmented with pictographic writing by using a sharp stylus to indicate what was being counted. Round-stylus and sharp-stylus writing were gradually replaced around 2700–2500 BC by writing using a wedge-shaped stylus (hence the term cuneiform), at first only for logograms, but developed to include phonetic elements by the 29th century BC. About 2600 BC, cuneiform began to represent syllables of the Sumerian language. Finally, cuneiform writing became a general-purpose writing system for logograms, syllables, and numbers. From the 26th century BC, this script was adapted to the Akkadian language, and from there to others, such as Hurrian and Hittite. Scripts similar in appearance to this writing system include those for Ugaritic and Old Persian.
The undeciphered Proto-Elamite script emerges from as early as 3100 BC. It is believed to have evolved into Linear Elamite by the later 3rd millennium and then replaced by Elamite Cuneiform adopted from Akkadian.
The Middle Bronze Age Indus script, which dates back to the early Harappan phase of around 3000 BCE in the Indian subcontinent corresponding to northwestern India and what is now Pakistan, has not yet been deciphered. It is unclear whether it should be considered an example of proto-writing or whether it is actual writing of the logographic-syllabic type of the other Bronze Age writing systems. Mortimer Wheeler recognises the style of writing as boustrophedon, where “this stability suggests a precarious maturity.”
Early Semitic alphabets
The first pure alphabets (properly, “abjads“, mapping single symbols to single phonemes, but not necessarily each phoneme to a symbol) emerged around 1800 BC in Ancient Egypt, as a representation of language developed by Semiticworkers in Egypt, but by then alphabetic principles had a slight possibility of being inculcated into Egyptian hieroglyphs for upwards of a millennium.[clarification needed] These early abjads remained of marginal importance for several centuries, and it is only towards the end of the Bronze Age that the Proto-Sinaitic script splits into the Proto-Canaanite alphabet (c. 1400 BC) Byblos syllabary and the South Arabian alphabet (c. 1200 BC). The Proto-Canaanite was probably somehow influenced by the undeciphered Byblos syllabary and, in turn, inspired the Ugaritic alphabet (c. 1300 BC).
Anatolian hieroglyphs are an indigenous hieroglyphic script native to western Anatolia, used to record the Hieroglyphic Luwian language. It first appeared on Luwian royal seals from the 14th century BC.
Cretan and Greek scripts
|Writing system||Geographical area||Time span|
|Cretan Hieroglyphic||Crete (eastward from the Knossos-Phaistos axis)||c. 2100−1700 BC|
|Linear A||Crete (except extreme southwest), Aegean islands (Kea, Kythera, Melos, Thera), and Greek mainland (Laconia)||c. 1800−1450 BC|
|Linear B||Crete (Knossos), and mainland (Pylos, Mycenae, Thebes, Tiryns)||c. 1450−1200 BC|
A stone slab with 3,000-year-old writing, the Cascajal Block, was discovered in the Mexican state of Veracruz, and is an example of the oldest script in the Western Hemisphere, preceding the oldest Zapotec writing dated to about 500 BC.
Of several pre-Columbian scripts in Mesoamerica, the one that appears to have been best developed, and has been fully deciphered, is the Maya script. The earliest inscriptions which are identifiably Maya date to the 3rd century BC, and writing was in continuous use until shortly after the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century AD. Maya writing used logograms complemented by a set of syllabic glyphs: a combination somewhat similar to modern Japanese writing.
Iron Age writing
The Phoenician alphabet is simply the Proto-Canaanite alphabet as it was continued into the Iron Age (conventionally taken from a cut-off date of 1050 BC). This alphabet gave rise to the Aramaic and Greek alphabets. These in turn led to the writing systems used throughout regions ranging from Western Asia to Africa and Europe. For its part the Greek alphabet introduced for the first time explicit symbols for vowel sounds. The Greek and Latin alphabets in the early centuries of the Common Era gave rise to several European scripts such as the Runes and the Gothic and Cyrillic alphabets while the Aramaic alphabet evolved into the Hebrew, Syriac and Arabic abjads and the South Arabian alphabet gave rise to the Ge’ez abugida, with other adaptations leading as far as Mongolian script. The Brahmic family of India is believed by some scholars to have derived from the Aramaic alphabet as well.
Writing in the Greco-Roman civilizations
The history of the Greek alphabet started when the Greeks borrowed the Phoenician alphabet and adapted it to their own language. The letters of the Greek alphabet are more or less the same as those of the Phoenician alphabet, and in modern times both alphabets are arranged in the same order. The adapter(s) of the Phoenician system added three letters to the end of the series, called the “supplementals”. Several varieties of the Greek alphabet developed. One, known as Western Greek or Chalcidian, was used west of Athens and in southern Italy. The other variation, known as Eastern Greek, was used in present-day Turkey and by the Athenians, and eventually the rest of the world that spoke Greek adopted this variation. After first writing right to left, like the Phoenicians, the Greeks eventually chose to write from left to right.
Greek is in turn the source for all the modern scripts of Europe. The most widespread descendant of Greek is the Latin script, named for the Latins, a central Italian people who came to dominate Europe with the rise of Rome. The Romans learned writing in about the 5th century BC from the Etruscan civilization, who used one of a number of Italic scripts derived from the western Greeks. Due to the cultural dominance of the Roman state, the other Italic scripts have not survived in any great quantity, and the Etruscan language is mostly lost.
Writing during the Middle Ages
With the collapse of the Roman authority in Western Europe, the literary development became largely confined to the Eastern Roman Empire and the Persian Empire. Latin, never one of the primary literary languages, rapidly declined in importance (except within the Church of Rome). The primary literary languages were Greek and Persian, though other languages such as Syriac and Coptic were important too.
The rise of Islam in the 7th century led to the rapid rise of Arabic as a major literary language in the region. Arabic and Persian quickly began to overshadow Greek’s role as a language of scholarship. Arabic script was adopted as the primary script of the Persian language and the Turkish language. This script also heavily influenced the development of the cursive scripts of Greek, the Slavic languages, Latin, and other languages. The Arabic language also served to spread the Hindu–Arabic numeral systemthroughout Europe. By the beginning of the second millennium the city of Cordoba in modern Spain, had become one of the foremost intellectual centers of the world and contained the world’s largest library at the time. Its position as a crossroads between the Islamic and Western Christian worlds helped fuel intellectual development and written communication between both cultures.
Renaissance and the modern era
By the 14th century a rebirth, or renaissance, had emerged in Western Europe, leading to a temporary revival of the importance of Greek, and a slow revival of Latin as a significant literary language. A similar though smaller emergence occurred in Eastern Europe, especially in Russia. At the same time Arabic and Persian began a slow decline in importance as the Islamic Golden Age ended. The revival of literary development in Western Europe led to many innovations in the Latin alphabet and the diversification of the alphabet to codify the phonologies of the various languages.
The nature of writing has been constantly evolving, particularly due to the development of new technologies over the centuries. The pen, the printing press, the computer and the mobile phone are all technological developments which have altered what is written, and the medium through which the written word is produced. Particularly with the advent of digital technologies, namely the computer and the mobile phone, characters can be formed by the press of a button, rather than making a physical motion with the hand.
The nature of the written word has recently evolved to include an informal, colloquial written style, in which an everyday conversation can occur through writing rather than speaking. Written communication can also be delivered with minimal time delay (e-mail, SMS), and in some cases, with an imperceptible time delay (instant messaging). Writing is a preservable means of communication.
There is no very definite statement as to the material which was in most common use for the purposes of writing at the start of the early writing systems. In all ages it has been customary to engrave on stone or metal, or other durable material, with the view of securing the permanency of the record; and accordingly, in the very commencement of the national history of Israel, it is read of the two tables of the law written in stone, and of a subsequent writing of the law on stone. In the latter case there is this peculiarity, that plaster (sic, lime or gypsum) was used along with stone, a combination of materials which is illustrated by comparison of the practice of the Egyptian engravers, who, having first carefully smoothed the stone, filled up the faulty places with gypsum or cement, in order to obtain a perfectly uniform surface on which to execute their engravings. Metals, such as stamped coins, are mentioned as a material of writing; they include lead, brass, and gold. To the engraving of gems there is reference also, such as with seals or signets.
The common materials of writing were the tablet and the roll, the former probably having a Chaldean origin, the latter an Egyptian. The tablets of the Chaldeans are among the most remarkable of their remains.[according to whom?] There are small pieces of clay, somewhat rudely shaped into a form resembling a pillow, and thickly inscribed with cuneiform characters. Similar use has been seen in hollow cylinders, or prisms of six or eight sides, formed of fine terra cotta, sometimes glazed, on which the characters were traced with a small stylus, in some specimens so minutely as to be capable of decipherment only with the aid of a magnifying-glass.
In Egypt the principal writing material was of quite a different sort. Wooden tablets are found pictured on the monuments; but the material which was in common use, even from very ancient times, was the papyrus, having recorded use as far back as 3,000 B.C.E. This reed, found chiefly in Lower Egypt, had various economic means for writing, the pith was taken out, and divided by a pointed instrument into the thin pieces of which it is composed; it was then flattened by pressure, and the strips glued together, other strips being placed at right angles to them, so that a roll of any length might be manufactured. Writing seems to have become more widespread with the invention of papyrus in Egypt. That this material was in use in Egypt from a very early period is evidenced by still existing papyrus of the earliest Theban dynasties. As the papyrus, being in great demand, and exported to all parts of the world, became very costly, other materials were often used instead of it, among which is mentioned leather, a few leather mills of an early period having been found in the tombs. Parchment, using sheepskins left after the wool was removed for cloth, was sometimes cheaper than papyrus, which had to be imported outside Egypt. With the invention of wood-pulp paper, the cost of writing material began a steady decline. Wood-pulp paper is still used today, and in recent times efforts have been made in order to improve bond strength of fibers. Two main areas of examination in this regard have been “dry strength of paper” and “wet web strength”. The former involves examination of the physical properties of the paper itself, while the latter involves using additives to improve strength.
- Phonetics, Palaeography, logograms, Brahmi, Devanagari, logographic, Vinča signs, Asemic writing
- Alphabet, Palaeography, Inscriptions, Book, Manuscript, Shorthand, Latin alphabet, writing system, ogham, Indus script, Mixtec, uncials, Zapotec, Aurignacian, Chinese characters (Kanji, Hanja), Ugarit, Katakana, Hiragana, Acheulean, Ethnoarchaeology, Hoabinhian, Gravettian, Oldowan, Uruk, Etruscan, Cretan hieroglyphs, Nabataean, Luwian, Olmec, Busra, Tamil, Kannada, Grakliani Hill
- History of numbers, History of art (Ancient art), Oral literature, History of developmental dyslexia, Protoscholastic writing
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A stone slab bearing 3,000-year-old writing previously unknown to scholars has been found in the Mexican state of Veracruz, and archaeologists say it is an example of the oldest script ever discovered in the Western Hemisphere.
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Ancient civilisations in Mexico developed a writing system as early as 900 BC, new evidence suggests.
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A block with a hitherto unknown system of writing has been found in the Olmec heartland of Veracruz, Mexico. Stylistic and other dating of the block places it in the early first millennium before the common era, the oldest writing in the New World, with features that firmly assign this pivotal development to the Olmec civilization of Mesoamerica.
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- Olivier, J.-P. (1986). “Cretan Writing in the Second Millennium B.C”. World Archaeology. 17 (3): 377–389. doi:10.1080/00438243.1986.9979977.
- Norman, Jerry (1988). Chinese. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-29653-6.
- Lambert, J.L.F. (2014-2017). Termcraft: The emergence of terminology science from the Vinčans and Sumerians to Aristotle. Lulu Press. ISBN 978-1-7751129-2-1
- 21st century sources
- The Idea of Writing: Writing Across Borders. Edited by Alex de Voogt, Joachim Friedrich Quack. BRILL, Dec 9, 2011.
- Powell, Barry B. 2009. Writing: Theory and History of the Technology of Civilization, Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 978-1-4051-6256-2
- Steven R. Fischer A History of Writing, Reaktion Books 2005 CN136481
- Hoffman, Joel M. 2004. In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language. New York University Press. Chapter 3.
- Jean-Jacques Glassne. The Invention of Cuneiform: Writing in Sumer. JHU Press, 2003. ISBN 0801873894
- Late 20th century sources
- Andrew Robinson, The Story of Writing. Thames & Hudson 1995 (second edition: 1999). ISBN 0-500-28156-4
- Hans J. Nissen, P. Damerow, R. Englund, Archaic Bookkeeping, University of Chicago Press, 1993, ISBN 0-500-01665-8
- Denise Schmandt-Besserat, Before Writing, Vol. I: From Counting to Cuneiform. University of Texas Press, 1992. ISBN 0292707835
- Denise Schmandt-Besserat, HomePage, How Writing Came About, University of Texas Press, 1992, ISBN 0-292-77704-3.
- Saggs, H., 1991. Civilization Before Greece and Rome. Yale University Press. Chapter 4.
- Jack Goody, The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society. Cambridge University Press, 1986
- Earlier 20th century sources
- Otto Neugebauer, Abraham Joseph Sachs, Albrecht Götze. Mathematical Cuneiform Texts. Pub. jointly by the American Oriental Society and the American Schools of Oriental Research, 1945.
- Smith, William Anton. The Reading Process. New York: The Macmillan company, 1922.
- Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica. A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature and General Information. Cambridge, Eng: University Press, 1911. “Writing”.
- Clodd, Edward. The Story of the Alphabet. Library of useful stories.
- cdli:wiki: Assyriological tools for specialists in cuneiform studies
- History of Writing. historian.net
- Alphabet & protoalphabet the manifest of astrologic doctrine?
- The New Post-Literate
- Denise Schmandt-Besserat HomePage
- Children of the Code: A Brief History of Writing – Online Video
History of Writing – Background
Writing – Definition
Writing & History
Writing in China developed from divination rites using oracle bones c. 1200 BCE and appears to also have arisen independently as there is no evidence of cultural transference at this time between China and Mesopotamia. The ancient Chinese practice of divination involved etching marks on bones or shells which were then heated until they cracked. The cracks would then be interpreted by a Diviner. If that Diviner had etched `Next Tuesday it will rain’ and `Next Tuesday it will not rain’ the pattern of the cracks on the bone or shell would tell him which would be the case. In time, these etchings evolved into the Chinese script.
History is impossible without the written word as one would lack context in which to interpret physical evidence from the ancient past. Writing records the lives of a people and so is the first necessary step in the written history of a culture or civilization. A prime example of this problem is the difficulty scholars of the late 19th/early 20th centuries CE had in understanding the Maya Civilization, in that they could not read the glyphs of the Maya and so wrongly interpreted much of the physical evidence they excavated. The early explorers of the Maya sites, such as Stephens and Catherwood, believed they had found evidence of an ancient Egyptian civilization in Central America.
This same problem is evident in understanding the ancient Kingdom of Meroe (in modern day Sudan), whose Meroitic Script is yet to be deciphered as well as the so-called Linear A script of the ancient Minoan culture of Crete which also has yet to be understood.
The Invention of Writing
The Sumerians first invented writing as a means of long-distance communication which was necessitated by trade. With the rise of the cities in Mesopotamia, and the need for resources which were lacking in the region, long-distance trade developed and, with it, the need to be able to communicate across the expanses between cities or regions.
The earliest form of writing was pictographs – symbols which represented objects – and served to aid in remembering such things as which parcels of grain had gone to which destination or how many sheep were needed for events like sacrifices in the temples. These pictographs were impressed onto wet clay which was then dried, and these became official records of commerce. As beer was a very popular beverage in ancient Mesopotamia, many of the earliest records extant have to do with the sale of beer. With pictographs, one could tell how many jars or vats of beer were involved in a transaction but not necessarily what that transaction meant. As the historian Kriwaczek notes,
All that had been devised thus far was a technique for noting down things, items and objects, not a writing system. A record of `Two Sheep Temple God Inanna’ tells us nothing about whether the sheep are being delivered to, or received from, the temple, whether they are carcasses, beasts on the hoof, or anything else about them. (63)
In order to express concepts more complex than financial transactions or lists of items, a more elaborate writing system was required, and this was developed in the Sumerian cityof Uruk c. 3200 BCE. Pictograms, though still in use, gave way to phonograms – symbols which represented sounds – and those sounds were the spoken language of the people of Sumer. With phonograms, one could more easily convey precise meaning and so, in the example of the two sheep and the temple of Inanna, one could now make clear whether the sheep were going to or coming from the temple, whether they were living or dead, and what role they played in the life of the temple. Previously, one had only static images in pictographs showing objects like sheep and temples. With the development of phonograms one had a dynamic means of conveying motion to or from a location.
Further, whereas in earlier writing (known as proto-cuneiform) one was restricted to lists of things, a writer could now indicate what the significance of those things might be. The scholar Ira Spar writes:
This new way of interpreting signs is called the rebus principle. Only a few examples of its use exist in the earliest stages of cuneiform from between 3200 and 3000 B.C. The consistent use of this type of phonetic writing only becomes apparent after 2600 B.C. It constitutes the beginning of a true writing system characterized by a complex combination of word-signs and phonograms—signs for vowels and syllables—that allowed the scribe to express ideas. By the middle of the Third Millennium B.C., cuneiform primarily written on clay tablets was used for a vast array of economic, religious, political, literary, and scholarly documents.
Writing & Literature
This new means of communication allowed scribes to record the events of their times as well as their religious beliefs and, in time, to create an art form which was not possible before the written word: literature. The first writer in history known by name is the Mesopotamian priestess Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE), daughter of Sargon of Akkad, who wrote her hymns to the goddess Inanna and signed them with her name and seal.
The so-called Matter of Aratta, four poems dealing with King Enmerkar of Uruk and his son Lugalbanda, were probably composed between 2112-2004 BCE (though only written down between 2017-1763 BCE). In the first of them, Enmerkar and The Lord of Aratta, it is explained that writing developed because the messenger of King Enmerkar, going back and forth between him and the King of the city of Aratta, eventually had too much to remember and so Enmerkar had the idea to write his messages down; and so writing was born.
The Epic of Gilgamesh, considered the first epic tale in the world and among the oldest extant literature, was composed at some point earlier than c. 2150 BCE when it was written down and deals with the great king of Uruk (and descendent of Enmerkar and Lugalbanda) Gilgamesh and his quest for the meaning of life. The myths of the people of Mesopotamia, the stories of their gods and heroes, their history, their methods of building, of burying their dead, of celebrating feast days, were now all able to be recorded for posterity. Writing made history possible because now events could be recorded and later read by any literate individual instead of relying on a community’s storyteller to remember and recite past events. Scholar Samuel Noah Kramer comments:
[The Sumerians] originated a system of writing on clay which was borrowed and used all over the Near East for some two thousand years. Almost all that we know of the early history of western Asia comes from the thousands of clay documents inscribed in the cuneiform script developed by the Sumerians and excavated by archaeologists. (4)
So important was writing to the Mesopotamians that, under the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal (r. 685-627 BCE) over 30,000 clay tablet books were collected in the library of his capital at Nineveh. Ashurbanipal was hoping to preserve the heritage, culture, and history of the region and understood clearly the importance of the written word in achieving this end. Among the many books in his library, Ashurbanipal included works of literature, such as the tale of Gilgamesh or the story of Etana, because he realized that literature articulates not just the story of a certain people, but of all people. The historian Durant writes:
Literature is at first words rather than letters, despite its name; it arises as clerical chants or magic charms, recited usually by the priests, and transmitted orally from memory to memory. Carmina, as the Romans named poetry, meant both verses and charms; ode, among the Greeks, meant originally a magic spell; so did the English rune and lay, and the German Lied. Rhythm and meter, suggested, perhaps, by the rhythms of nature and bodily life, were apparently developed by magicians or shamans to preserve, transmit, and enhance the magic incantations of their verse. Out of these sacerdotal origins, the poet, the orator, and the historian were differentiated and secularized: the orator as the official lauder of the king or solicitor of the deity; the historian as the recorder of the royal deeds; the poet as the singer of originally sacred chants, the formulator and preserver of heroic legends, and the musician who put his tales to music for the instruction of populace and kings.
The role of the poet in preserving heroic legends would become an important one in cultures throughout the ancient world. The Mesopotamian scribe Shin-Legi-Unninni (wrote 1300-1000 BCE) would help preserve and transmit The Epic of Gilgamesh. Homer (c. 800 BCE) would do the same for the Greeks and Virgil (70-19 BCE) for the Romans. The Indian epic Mahabharata (written down c. 400 BCE) preserves the oral legends of that region in the same way the tales and legends of Scotland and Ireland do. All of these works, and those which came after them, were only made possible through the advent of writing.
The early cuneiform writers established a system which would completely change the nature of the world in which they lived. The past, and the stories of the people, could now be preserved through writing. The Phoenicians’ contribution of the alphabet made writing easier and more accessible to other cultures, but the basic system of putting symbols down on paper to represent words and concepts began much earlier. Durant notes:
The Phoenicians did not create the alphabet, they marketed it; taking it apparently from Egypt and Crete, they imported it piecemeal to Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos, and exported it to every city on the Mediterranean; they were the middlemen, not the producers, of the alphabet. By the time of Homer the Greeks were taking over this Phoenician – or the allied Aramaic – alphabet, and were calling it by the Semitic names of the first two letters, Alpha, Beta; Hebrew Aleph, Beth.
Early writing systems, imported to other cultures, evolved into the written language of those cultures so that the Greek and Latin would serve as the basis for European script in the same way that the Semitic Aramaic script would provide the basis for Hebrew, Arabic, and possibly Sanskrit. The materials of writers have evolved as well, from the cut reeds with which early Mesopotamian scribes marked the clay tablets of cuneiform to the reed pens and papyrus of the Egyptians, the parchment of the scrolls of the Greeks and Romans, the calligraphy of the Chinese, on through the ages to the present day of computerized composition and the use of processed paper.
In whatever age, since its inception, writing has served to communicate the thoughts and feelings of the individual and of that person’s culture, their collective history, and their experiences with the human condition, and to preserve those experiences for future generations.
History of Writing Bibliography
- The Origins of Writing by Ira Spar
- Durant, W. Our Oriental Heritage. (Simon & Schuster, 1954).
- Scarre, C. & Fagan, B.F. Ancient Civilizations. (Pearson, 2007).
- Black, J. , et. al. The Literature of Ancient Sumer. (Oxford University Press, 2005).
- Coe, M. D. The Maya. (Thames & Hudson, 2015).
- Ebrey, P. B. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. (Cambridge University Press, 2010).
- Kramer, S. N. The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character. (University of Chicago Press, 1971).
- Kriwaczek, P. Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization. (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012).
- Van De Mieroop, M. A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000 – 323 BC, 2nd Edition. (Blackwell Publishing, 2006).
- Wise Bauer, S. The History of the Ancient World. (W. W. Norton & Company, 2007).