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How did writing begin?

We’re continuing our discussion of what is a book today with some historical perspective. The excerpt below by Andrew Robinson from The Book: A Global History gives some interesting insight into how the art of writing began.

Without writing, there would be no recording, no history, and of course no books. The creation of writing permitted the command of a ruler and his seal to extend far beyond his sight and voice, and even to survive his death. If the Rosetta Stone did not exist, for example, the world would be virtually unaware of the nondescript Egyptian king Ptolemy V Epiphanes, whose priests promulgated his decree upon the stone in three scripts: hieroglyphic, demotic, and (Greek) alphabetic.

How did writing begin? The favoured explanation, until the Enlightenment in the 18th century, was divine origin. Today, many—probably most—scholars accept that the earliest writing evolved from accountancy, though it is puzzling that such accounts are little in evidence in the surviving writing of ancient Egypt, India, China, and Central America (which does not preclude commercial record-keeping on perishable materials such as bamboo in these early civilizations). In other words, some time in the late 4th millennium bc, in the cities of Sumer in Mesopotamia, the ‘cradle of civilization’, the complexity of trade and administration reached a point where it outstripped the power of memory among the governing elite. To record transactions in an indisputable, permanent form became essential.

Fragment of an inscripted clay cone of Urukagina (or Uruinimgina), lugal (prince) of Lagash. circa 2350 BC. terracotta. Musée du Louvre. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Fragment of an inscripted clay cone of Urukagina (or Uruinimgina), lugal (prince) of Lagash. circa 2350 BC. terracotta. Musée du Louvre. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Some scholars believe that a conscious search for a solution to this problem by an unknown Sumerian individual in the city of Uruk (biblical Erech), c .3300 bc, produced writing. Others posit that writing was the work of a group, presumably of clever administrators and merchants. Still others think it was not an invention at all, but an accidental discovery. Many regard it as the result of evolution over a long period, rather than a flash of inspiration. One particularly well-aired theory holds that writing grew out of a long-standing counting system of clay ‘tokens’. Such ‘tokens’—varying from simple, plain discs to more complex, incised shapes whose exact purpose is unknown—have been found in many Middle Eastern archaeological sites, and have been dated from 8000 to 1500 bc. The substitution of two-dimensional symbols in clay for these three dimensional tokens was a first step towards writing, according to this theory. One major difficulty is that the ‘tokens’ continued to exist long after the emergence of Sumerian cuneiform writing; another is that a two-dimensional symbol on a clay tablet might be thought to be a less, not a more, advanced concept than a three-dimensional clay ‘token’. It seems more likely that ‘tokens’ accompanied the emergence of writing, rather than giving rise to writing.

Apart from the ‘tokens’, numerous examples exist of what might be termed ‘proto-writing’. They include the Ice Age symbols found in caves in southern France, which are probably 20,000 years old. A cave at Pech Merle, in the Lot, contains a lively Ice Age graffiti to showing a stenciled hand and a pattern of red dots. This may simply mean: ‘I was here, with my animals’—or perhaps the symbolism is deeper. Other prehistoric images show animals such as horses, a stag’s head, and bison, overlaid with signs; and notched bones have been found that apparently served as lunar calendars.

‘Proto-writing’ is not writing in the full sense of the word. A scholar of writing, the Sinologist John DeFrancis , has defined ‘full’ writing as a ‘system of graphic symbols that can be used to convey any and all thought’—a concise and influential definition. According to this, ‘proto-writing’ would include, in addition to Ice Age cave symbols and Middle Eastern clay ‘tokens’, the Pictish symbol stones and tallies such as the fascinating knotted Inca quipus, but also contemporary sign systems such as international transportation symbols, highway code signs, computer icons, and mathematical and musical notation. None of these ancient or modern systems is capable of expressing ‘any and all thought’, but each is good at specialized communication (DeFrancis, Visible Speech, 4).

Andrew Robinson is the author of some 25 books in the arts and sciences including Writing and Script: A Very Short Introduction and Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-François Champollion. He is a contributor to The Book: A Global History, edited by Michael F. Suarez, S.J. and H. R. Woudhuysen.

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