Where did writing begin?

Where did writing begin?

From Mesopotamia to the Americas, discover how different regions around the world adopted writing at different times and for different reasons.

Full writing-systems appear to have been invented independently at least four times in human history: first in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) where cuneiform was used between 3400 and 3300 BC, and shortly afterwards in Egypt at around 3200 BC. By 1300 BC we have evidence of a fully operational writing system in late Shang-dynasty China. Sometime between 900 and 600 BC writing also appears in the cultures of Mesoamerica.

There are also several places such as the Indus River valley and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) where writing may have been invented but it remains undeciphered.

Although these dates suggest that writing could have spread out from one central point of origin, there is little evidence of any links between these systems, with each possessing unique qualities.

Mesopotamian origins

Scholars generally agree that the earliest form of writing appeared almost 5,500 years ago in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). Early pictorial signs were gradually substituted by a complex system of characters representing the sounds of Sumerian (the language of Sumer in Southern Mesopotamia) and other languages.

From 2900 BC, these began to be impressed in wet clay with a reed stylus, making wedge-shaped marks which are now known as cuneiform.

4,000-year old tablet recording workers' wages

4,000 year old tablet recording workers wages

This tablet preserves an account of wages paid to workers 4,000 years ago.

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The process of writing cuneiform stabilised over the next 600 years. Curves were eliminated, signs simplified and the direct connection between the look of pictograms and their original object of reference was lost.

Sometime during this same period, the symbols – which were initially read from top to bottom – came to be read from left to right in horizontal lines (vertical alignments were kept for more traditional pronouncements). In keeping with this, the symbols were also realigned, rotated 90 degrees anti-clockwise.

Eventually, in 2340 BC, Sumer fell to the armies of Sargon, King of the Akkadians, a northern Semitic people who had previously co-existed with the Sumerians. By this time, cuneiform had, for several centuries, been used bilingually to write Akkadian too. Sargon, the latest in a line of expansive Akkadian leaders, built an Empire that ran from present day Lebanon down to ‘the nether sea’ (the Persian Gulf). Eventually, as many as 15 languages would use cuneiform-inspired characters.

Sumerian lingered on as the language of learning until at least 200 BC. Cuneiform, the system invented to record it, however, outlived it by almost three centuries: it lasted as a writing system for other languages well into the Christian era. The last datable document in cuneiform is an astronomical text from 75 AD.

Egypt

New discoveries have pushed back the date for writing in Egypt close to that of Mesopotamia. Discoveries of large-scale incised ceremonial scenes at the rock art site of El-Khawy in Egypt date to around 3250 BC. They show features similar to early hieroglyphic forms. Some of these rock-carved signs are nearly half a metre in height.

From 3200 BC onwards Egyptian hieroglyphs appeared on small ivory tablets used as labels for grave goods in the tomb of the pre-dynastic King Scorpion at Abydos and on ceremonial surfaces used for grinding cosmetics, such as the Narmer Palette.

Writing in ink using reed brushes and pens is first found in Egypt. This ink writing came to be known in Greek as hieratic (‘priestly’ script), whilst the carved and painted letters we see on monuments are called hieroglyphs (‘sacred carvings’).

Carved and written characters are close in date. This suggests that from the earliest times, writing in Egypt had two functions: one was ceremonial, a display script (carved), the other was in the service of royal and temple administrations (written).

Within four centuries of the finds in King Scorpion’s tomb, hieroglyphs and Hieratic (a cursive writing system used for Ancient Egyptian) developed a full range of characters. This included:

  • 24 uni-consonantal symbols (an ‘alphabet’ containing various consonants only)
  • phonetic components representing combinations of sounds
  • determinative signs (signs with no phonetic value, used only to determine which of several alternative meanings for a word is meant in a particular context).

It is from this Egyptian writing that an alphabet would first evolve, sometime from 1850 BC onwards.

Egyptian stela with hymn to Osiris

Egyptian stela

A limestone stela showing classical hieroglyphs from 3,600 years ago

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China

The earliest examples of writing in China were found near present-day Anyang, on a tributary of the Yellow River, 500km south of Beijing. Here, the kings of the late Shang dynasty (1300–1050 BC) had founded their capital and carried out divination rituals using animal bones.

For centuries, fragments of bones had been found by farmers and sold for use in Chinese medicine as ‘dragon bones’. It was not until 1899 that politician and scholar Wang Yirong (1845–1900) recognised characters carved into the surface of some of these bones and realised their significance. As the earliest written records of Chinese civilization found to date, these inscriptions extended Chinese historical and linguistic knowledge by several centuries.

These 'oracle' bones (the shoulder blades of oxen and turtle plastrons) record questions that were posed to the royal ancestors about topics as diverse as crop rotation, warfare, childbirth and even toothache. To date, nearly 150,000 examples of such bones have been found, containing over 4,500 different symbols, many of which can be identified as the ancestors of Chinese characters still in use today.

But Shang readers would not be able to read present-day Chinese and the majority of the characters on the oracle bones remain undeciphered. Even the characters that can be identified have evolved considerably in terms of their function and form. Not only did pictographic characters become gradually more abstract, but as the written vocabulary expanded, more compound forms developed.

Basic components were shared between characters to reflect similarities in pronunciation or meaning. In this way, since ancient times, Chinese characters have been able to represent both concepts and the sounds of spoken language to varying degrees.

The bones show a fully developed writing system which must have been formed many years – perhaps centuries – earlier, although earlier materials have not yet been discovered and may not have survived.

Chinese oracle bone

Oracle bones were used for divination over three thousand years ago in ancient China and they are the oldest items held in the British Library. This is the recto image.

Oracle bones were used for divination over 3,000 years ago in ancient China.

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Mesoamerica

Recent discoveries have pushed the evidence for writing in this area – which runs from southern Mexico to Costa Rica – close to 900 BC.

The discoveries have also widened the range of cultures and languages that we know used writing from the Maya, Mixtecs and Aztecs to include the earlier Olmecs and Zapotecs.

There were two types of writing systems in pre-colonial Mesoamerica:

  1. Open systems were means of recording texts that were not linked to the grammatical and sound structures of specific languages. They functioned as mnemonic devices, guiding readers through the narratives of texts without relying on the linguistic background of the given audience. These were common among the Aztecs and other Mexica communities of central Mexico.
  2. Closed systems were tied to the sound and grammatical structures of specific languages. These were targeted at particular linguistic communities and functioned similarly to the writing we know today. Examples of these closed systems can be found among the Maya

The position of scribe was of high status. Maya artists were often younger sons of the royal family. The Keepers of the Holy Books, the highest scribal office, acted as librarians, historians, genealogists, tribute recorders, marriage arrangers, masters of ceremonies, and astronomers.

Just four Maya books survive from the pre-colonial period and fewer than 20 from the entire region. These codices are painted onto deer skin and tree bark, the writing surface coated (as were many of the buildings) with a polished lime paste or gesso.

Limestone stela with Mayan glyphs

Limestone stela with Mayan glyphs

A stone stela erected from Belize showing the Maya writing system

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There are still many unanswered questions about the extent and complexity of writing’s use in pre-colonial Mesoamerica. Much of the evidence is unavailable since the vast majority of materials that survived into the 16th century were burned by the Spanish conquistadors.

Indus River valley (Pakistan and northwest India)

Harappa seal from the Indus Valley

Seal from the Indus Valley

Symbols found on stone seals from the Indus Valley of Pakistan and northern India

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In the Indus River valley of Pakistan and northwest India, symbols have been found on objects that may be writing. The society that used these symbols was the culmination of a historical settlement in the Indus region that goes back to at least 7000 BC. A high urban culture flourished for 700 years, between 2600 and 1900 BC, at which point the cities declined.

Although we have about 5,000 known inscribed artefacts and the longest inscription consists of 26 symbols, most are just three or four signs long.

The 400 unique symbols that have been identified are too low in number for a viable logographic word-based writing system. This number of characters is similar to that found in pre-dynastic Egyptian hieroglyphs and early Sumerian script. Scholars have therefore suggested that like these two systems, the Indus River Valley script may contain a mixture of logographic and syllabic components.

Rapa Nui (Easter Island, Polynesia)

Around two dozen wooden tablets inscribed with glyphs were discovered on Rapa Nui in the 19th century. Rongorongo, a term the Rapa Nui themselves applied to these objects, was interpreted by missionaries at that time to mean ‘lines incised for chanting out’. But knowledge of how to use the tablets had already been lost by that time.

The characters reflect human, animal and plant motifs. There are 120 elementary (un-joined) glyphs, which have been used to write texts as long as 2,320 characters and as short as just two.

Whether rongorongo is purely a mnemonic device or a system of logographic and syllabic symbols remains an open question, as does its claim to be a unique sixth point of origin for a writing system.

Wooden tablet from Easter Island (Rapa Nui)

Wooden tablet from Rapa Nui

A wooden tablet collected on Rapa Nui (Easter Island), inscribed with glyphs

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Change and stability

Very little about the origins of writing is settled today and for this reason, it continues to be an exciting area to study. New archaeological discoveries could easily change the dates of origin in Egypt, China and Mesoamerica.

Meanwhile, new decipherments, like those we await for the scripts from the Indus River Valley or the Rapa Nui tablets could link up cultures we now think of as separate.

  • Ewan Clayton
  • Ewan is Professor in Design at the University of Sunderland and external advisor to the British Library's 2019 exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark. He is a core faculty member of the Royal School of Drawing and is a calligrapher.