What the Earliest Texts Say About the Invention of Writing

Early Chinese characters on an ox scapula used in divination rituals (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Though we call the last several decades of computational invention the Information Age, we might better look thousands of years in the past to see its true beginnings. That’s when writing, a system that has served as the basis for our collective store of information ever since, began.
This revolutionary idea likely emerged four times in human history: in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and Mesoamerica. In each case, it seems that people with no prior exposure to writing invented symbolic systems that would eventually transcribe anything that could be said.
My last story discussed how these scripts developed through broadly similar stages. To sum it up in one sentence: the original writing systems began with mostly pictorial characters that resembled their referent, and over time became more efficient and abstract, including a greater number of signs that represented sounds and semantic information.
Although the different scripts followed similar patterns of development, the initial causes and contexts of their inventions differed. Here, let’s delve into those differences.
Shopping Receipts from 3200 BC
What we know about ancient scripts is biased by the durability of various forms of media. Early texts written on perishable materials, like parchment or wood, mostly deteriorated over time. Words carved in clay or stone endured. So, to begin, we must understand that archaeologists are working with an incomplete record.
They’ve made the most progress for Mesopotamia because — conveniently — its earliest texts seem to have been inscribed onto baked clay tablets (chapter 4).
Proto-cuneiform tablets discovered at Uruk. (Credit: http://cdli.ox.ac.uk/wiki/doku.php?id=proto-cuneiform)
Mesopotamian characters, which first appeared around 3200 BC, had a wedge-like appearance, leading later scholars to call the system cuneiform, after the Latin word cuneus for “wedge.” The earliest-known cuneiform (technically proto-cuneiform) texts were discovered in the temple precinct of Uruk,

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