In the last post, I ended by wondering why humans started to write. What did writing allow that oral storytelling didn’t? One thing springs to mind, well two actually—consistency (reliability or uniformity; the quality of being consistent) and constancy (the quality of being constant; steadiness or faithfulness in action, affections, purpose, and so on). Write it down and there should be no dispute. It’s there in ‘black and white’.
As human societies emerged, the development of writing was driven by pressing needs such as exchanging information, maintaining financial accounts, codifying laws and recording history. Around 6,000 years ago, the complexity of trade and administration in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq, more or less) outgrew human memory, and writing became a more dependable method of recording and presenting transactions in a permanent form. While older Neolithic writings have been found in Europe and carbon dated to some 7,500 years ago, conventional history assumes that the writing process first evolved in Mesopotamia.
That said, while the Sumerians of Mesopotamia are regarded as the first civilisation to use writing, it seems that writing arose independently in Mesoamerica some 2,300 years ago. Independent writing systems also arose in Egypt around the same time as the Sumerians, and in China around 3,200 years ago, but historians debate whether these writing systems were developed completely independently of Sumerian writing or whether either or both were inspired by Sumerian writing as stories of this powerful new system of recording was passed on by traders and merchants travelling between the two regions.
As we unearth fragments and use new techniques to analyse them, there seems to be a race between the Sumerians and the Egyptians for who first invented writing. This ‘who was first’ perspective isn’t overly useful unless one understands the inter-relationships between the different people of the area. People traded over much longer distances and longer ago than we tend to believe. Debate also rages over what ‘true’ writing is. Indus script, for example, is a set of symbols produced by the Indus Valley civilization between 5,500 and 3,900 years ago. Most inscriptions are extremely short, making it difficult to judge whether or not this system of symbols could be used to record a language, or represent a writing system.
As with most things, there will have been a progression driven by need, ingenuity and available resources. Approximately 10,000 years ago, the Mesopotamians began using clay tokens to count their agricultural and manufactured goods. Later they began placing these tokens inside large, hollow clay containers which were then sealed. The quantity of tokens within each container was expressed by impressing, on the container’s surface, one picture for each token inside. In time, the tokens were dispensed with and people relied solely on symbols for the tokens, drawn on clay surfaces. To avoid making a picture for each instance of the same object (for example: 100 pictures of a hat to represent 100 hats), they ‘counted’ the objects by using various small marks. In this way “a system for enumerating objects to their incipient system of symbols” was added.
Over time, these marks developed into cuneiform script, used across Mesopotamia to record laws and maps, compile medical manuals, document religious stories and beliefs, among other uses. It is distinguished by its wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets, made by means of a blunt reed for a stylus. The name cuneiform itself simply means ‘wedge shaped’.
Studies suggest that cuneiform literacy was not reserved solely for the elite but was common for average citizens. Another seemingly progressive aspect of Mesopotamian culture was the rights of women. Furthermore, there were over 1,000 deities in Mesopotamian cultures and many stories concerning the gods (among them, the creation myth, the Enuma Elish), and it is generally accepted that many biblical tales, including the Fall of Man and the Flood of Noah originated in Mesopotamian lore, as they first appear in Mesopotamian works such as The Myth of Adapa and the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest written story in the world. The Mesopotamians believed that they were co-workers with the gods and that the land was infused with spirits and demons (though ‘demons’ should not be understood in the modern, Christian, sense). This could be an interesting area to return to—this first, complex civilisation where equality reigned and having many gods was not a problem.
One thing seems sure, writing evolved out of a need to remember numerous transactions and facts. Writing was a necessity of civilisation and this series is more interested in what came before civilisation. What made us leave behind the old ways for the new? Writing, like settled agriculture before, seems to be the result of an already altered world view, rather than the cause of it. So what tangible artefacts did the earliest humans make? Tools, obviously, but perhaps there’s something to be learned from the earliest objects of no obvious utility. Next time, we’ll look at adornments.
Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal and welcomes all feedback particularly, as we discover more, on the accuracy of dates.