Where Was Writing Invented?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Writing is thought to have been invented in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) 6,000 years ago, in 4000 BC. There is a possible disputed instance of writing 2,000 years earlier, from tortoise-shell carvings excavated in China, although it is under debate whether these markings are complex enough to qualify as written language.

Early writing used images to represent words rather than letters, as do some Chinese characters.
Early writing used images to represent words rather than letters, as do some Chinese characters.

Mesopotamian cuneiform is the first widely acknowledged form of writing, created by pressing a reed stylus into soft clay and letting it harden. It began using logograms — a type of writing where, rather than corresponding to a sound, each symbol corresponds to an entire word. This type survives to this day in the form of some Chinese characters. Writing was a closely guarded skill used only by scribes and priests. Its original function was in accounting, for instance, tabulating how many slaves were working on a particular job. The founding of written words was closely accompanied by the first numbers.

Writing was historically a rare skill known only to priests and scribes.
Writing was historically a rare skill known only to priests and scribes.

After the practice began in Mesopotamia, it started to show up in a variety of other places worldwide. The first known Egyptian hieroglyphics, from the Narmer Palette, date back to 3100 BC, 900 years after the invention of Mesopotamian cuneiform. The mysterious Indus Valley civilization in India starting writing scripts around 3000 BC, although these have not been deciphered.

Writing is thought to have been invented in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) 6,000 years ago, in 4000 BC.
Writing is thought to have been invented in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) 6,000 years ago, in 4000 BC.

Around 2900 BC, Mesopotamian writing evolved to include sounds, rather than just logograms. In about 2600 BC, Sumerian speech was translated into written syllables via cuneiform. Made out of brittle clay, most of these ancient examples have been destroyed.

The world's first alphabet is known to have originated in Egypt in 2000 BC, based on hieroglyphics. It then spread to the Levant and the rest of the world. Many Egyptian hieroglyphics have been preserved in stone. Thanks to the Rosetta stone, which included writing in Ancient Greek alongside hieroglyphics, people were able to translate some of the symbols.

The world's first alphabet originated in Egyptian hieroglyphics.
The world's first alphabet originated in Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments

pastanaga

@irontoenail - Well, we don't really know enough about the human brain and history to speculate. As it says in the article, a lot of the earliest examples of writing have been lost and even things like cave paintings which you could call an early form of communication similar to story writing, are not very commonly found, even though they were probably very common a long time ago.

irontoenail

@KoiwiGal - I don't know enough about it to really be able to speculate, but I think the fact that writing was such a specialized skill for so long argues against it being a trait that evolved with us. If everyone was writing for all of human history it might make sense, but as far as I know it was usually limited to people like scribes and monks and other folk who could afford the paper and the inks or the other kinds of materials needed.

We forget that it has only been recently that public schools and the printing press has made reading and writing available and, indeed, almost compulsory for most of the world's population. If there is a part of the brain that controls this kind of skill, I imagine it is there by accident rather than design (depending on your thoughts on evolution, of course!).

KoiwiGal

You've got to wonder whether all these writing skills spread around the world or whether they spontaneously emerged in more than one place at once. I mean, we seem to have a part of the brain that is responsible for being able to decipher writing rather than pictures, and you can tell that because of some disorders which make writing difficult. People can have part of their brain damaged so that they can do almost everything perfectly well, except read or write.

So it makes me wonder whether that is a specific area of the brain that evolved with the idea of writing, or whether it just happened to evolve for some other reason and we all happened to figure out how to exploit it for writing.

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