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The Origins of Writing

20 November 2023

A Short History of Writing


There are many theories about how writing emerged, but it is generally thought that writing began with accounting.Being able permanently to record numbers of animals, amounts of grain, and recipes for beer became essential to support ancient societies organised around temple and palace.


Clay tokens of different shapes have been found at many Middle-Eastern sites from as early as 8000 BC. These tokens may have been used for counting when the amount of information needed for trade exceeded the average human memory. Similarly the Inca empire of South America stored information using quipu, which were groups of strings of different colours, knotted at intervals to record census statistics and taxes.

Eventually, symbols developed that were used to represent words or ideas, rather than numbers. The earliest writing was probably pictographic, using drawings of real things to convey meanings, such as are seen in Ice Age cave paintings. We still use many pictograms today – just look at the signs on the doors of any public toilets.

The idea of assigning a phonetic (sound) value to a symbol was a radical step forward in the development of writing. The earliest writing identified is cuneiform script, which dates to around 3300 BC and was probably invented by the Sumerians, in the area that is now known as southern Iraq. Other scripts were later created in Egypt (3100 BC), the Indus Valley (2500 BC), Crete (1900 BC), China (1200 BC), and in Central America (600 BC).

Woman with wax tablet and stylus. This portrait is from a fresco found in Pompei, now housed in the Museum Archeologico di Napoli. Photographer Marie van Nuygen: Wikimedia Commons


It is not known how much one culture influenced the development of writing in other cultures, or whether writing was a completely independent invention in some cases. What is clear is that numerous writing systems have been developed around the world, many of which look and sound unique. Nonetheless they all do the same important job, allowing us to communicate through writing

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