The Origins of Writing

Article | Issue: Jul 2022

Writing is considered a key foundation of civilisation as we know it today.

AKINA HANSEN delves into the origins of writing and its contribution to cultural progress.


Over the course of history, language has enabled humans to collaborate and innovate by communicating their ideas, thoughts and feelings. This began with spoken language and gradually developed into a written system of words and symbols.

We see evidence of language from cave paintings throughout France and Spain which date to circa 35 000 BCE during the period of the Cro-Magnon man or prehistoric peoples. These paintings suggest the presence of language through telling a story of everyday living, rather than just depicting independent images.

The development of a more sophisticated form of communication isn’t evident however until circa 3500 – 3000 BCE, where we find the first evidence of a writing system. A common misconception is that writing originated in Ancient Egypt. This is understandable considering Egypt did develop a writing system (now referred to as hieroglyphics) early on, at around 3200 BCE. But archaeologists have in fact attributed the first invention of writing to one of the earliest civilisations in the world, Sumer, in southern Mesopotamia.

Mesopotamia was an ancient region located in the eastern Mediterranean, bounded by the Zagros Mountains in the north-east, and the Arabian Plateau in the south-east. The word Mesopotamia is Greek and means ‘between the rivers’; as Mesopotamia was located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (now Iraq, north-east Syria and part of south-east Turkey).

Archaeological excavations from the 1840s dated human settlements back to 10 000 BCE in Mesopotamia. It’s believed that humans settled in this region due to the fertile land. Hunter-gatherers in this area would go on to domesticate animals, develop agriculture, irrigation and trade, which eventually led to urbanisation and the rise of one of the first cities.

Mesopotamia, also known as the ‘cradle of civilisation’, over thousands of years produced multiple empires and civilisations which have contributed greatly to human cultural progress; from the invention of writing, a code of laws, the wheel, the concept of an hour, beer brewing, civil rights and irrigation systems.

The terrain of Mesopotamia ultimately informed how the region developed socially and economically. In northern Mesopotamia we see wide stretches of hills and plains, and the land is fertile due to seasonal rains and the rivers and streams which flow from the Zagros Mountains. While in southern Mesopotamia we see marshy areas and wide stretches of barren plains, which in turn resulted in cities being developed along the rivers and irrigation occurring around the banks of the rivers to grow crops. The lack of natural resources in the area placed importance on communicating with neighbouring lands.

The fourth millennium BCE saw the rise of large cities across Mesopotamia, and in the third millennium BCE there were approximately 40 cities in the regions of Sumer and Akkad. This fostered long-distance trade between cities and regions lacking in resources. This brings us back to writing, which was invented out of a need for communicating and trading over long distances.

The city of Uruk in Sumer was founded in the fifth millennium BCE and survived until the first millennium AD. It’s considered the birthplace of writing, mathematics and literature.

In 1929, German archaeologist Julius Jordan discovered a library of 5000-year-old clay tablets in Uruk. Initially, scholars were unsure of the purpose behind the tablets – but in the 1970s, French archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat deduced that the tablets were used for correspondence counting in tandem with little spherical objects found in the ruins of Uruk and other Mesopotamian cities. Schmandt-Besserat concluded that the tablets had in fact been used to record the back and forth of the spherical tokens, which were also recording the trade of commodities such as sheep, grain and honey. This is called proto-cuneiform, the earliest form of writing, which consisted of pictograms (symbols that represent objects). The symbols or the tokens are then impressed into the clay while wet.

By 3000 BCE, writing began to record more than just financial transactions and items. This writing system, called cuneiform, developed to document information on daily life, bureaucracy and authority. It uses wedge-shaped signs which are created by impressing the tip of a reed into a clay tablet. It was characterised by a combination of word-signs and phonograms, which are symbols that represent sound. The sounds recorded were the spoken language of Sumerians. This in turn enabled them to document more elaborately through indicating the properties or purpose of an object.

Scholar Samuel Noah Kramer states: ‘[The Sumerians] originated a system of writing on clay which was borrowed and used all over the Near East for some 2000 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.’

During the third millennium BCE Sumerians and Akkadians (a northern Semitic people) coexisted until 2340 BCE when Sumer fell to the armies of Sargon, King of the Akkadians. After which the Akkadian writing system (which had adapted the Sumerian) took over. Finally in 75 AD cuneiform was abandoned when it was replaced with alphabetic script.

Ultimately the Sumerian city of Uruk advanced the writing of cuneiform and facilitated the codification of laws, record keeping, and the birth of literature (see the Epic of Gilgamesh). This in turn aided the development of other great Mesopotamian civilisations, from the Akkadians, Babylonians, Elamites, Hatti, Hittites, Assyrians through to the Hurrians. But that’s another story …



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