“WRITE THIS DOWN”
THE ORIGINS OF WRITING
5,500 years ago
|This clay tablet is one of about 382 Amarna letters, circa 1388-1332 BC (3,388-3,332 years ago), written in Akkadian cuneiform, an ancient Mesopotamian writing system.
Credit: Courtesy of Wikipedia.
We take writing for granted – whether it is in the form of actual physical objects with writing on them – such as books, newspapers, magazines – or, today, in the form of electronic print, such as electronic books, emails, electronic newspapers, blogs, twitters, or text messaging. It is somewhat hard to believe that people haven’t always communicated through written words, but this is a fairly recent invention, introduced more than 160,000 years after modern humans arrived on the scene, long after the development of modern human language, and even thousands of years after humans ‘settled down’ and started producing our own food. It was with the rise of complex societies that it became more necessary to make records of important information: crop and material inventories, laws, religious texts, and historical events. In many parts of the world (the Near East, Europe, China, Egypt, and Mesoamerica) people began to use signs and symbols to stand for specific words or for specific sounds in their language. This was, in essence, an Information Revolution: no longer was oral tradition and memory required to maintain important facts. It could be written down.
Each society that went down this pathway had to work out their own way to transcribe the spoken words of their society into some system of symbols, and some way to physically write them down, in order to convey the meanings of their words. Writing seems to have developed independently in a number of civilizations, but sometimes the idea of writing also seems to have spread from one culture to another and then the specific ways of transcribing the spoken word worked out locally.
In Sumeria, the very first writing was made on wet clay tablets using a wooden stylus (called cuneiform). In China, written language can be traced from symbols on oracle bones to pottery, bronze, and finally paper. In Egypt and Mesoamerica, glyphs were invented that represented sounds of words that could be combined to make complete words. Distinction is sometimes made between what is called “proto-writing,” in which symbols or “glyphs” may represent for instance an idea, but not represent the actual spoken sounds associated with the idea. In a later, more advanced form of writing, the symbols tend to represent sounds, either through representing the whole word or syllables or, as in the case of our alphabet, for instance, sounds.
HOW DO WE KNOW?
The earliest known writing is found on clay tablets in Mesopotamia (now Iraq). As time proceeded, writing would be found on a range of materials: clay, stone, papyrus, painting, and preserved textiles. Many of these ancient languages have been translated, but some have yet to be deciphered.
WHY SHOULD I CARE?
Writing allows information to be recorded for long-term storage ad retrieval, and creates a more permanent record. We tend to take writing for granted in our modern lives, but at one time this was an absolutely revolutionary innovation. With writing, information and ideas can be spread far and wide and be passed down for generations.
This website discusses the origins of many writing systems.
This is another webpage that talks about writing origins.
This Wikipedia webpage is more detailed survey of the earliest writing systems.
This BBC News article is about the earliest evidence of writing found in China, dating to 6,600 B.C.