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How Humans Invented Writing — Four Different Times

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mesopotamian tablet

Two sides of a tag from ~3,100 BC Mesopotamia describing the transfer of 25 female and 5 male goats. The crossed circle is the symbol for goat, the circles and semicircles represent numbers and the fish symbol indicates a lord involved in the exchange. (Credit: Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History; photo by K. Wagensonner)

About 5,000 years ago, 30 goats changed hands between Sumerians. To record the transaction, a receipt was carved onto a clay tag, about the size of a Post-it. Simple geometric signs represented the livestock and purveyor. The indents of circles and semicircles denoted the quantity exchanged.

Imagine how surprised these people would be to learn their receipt is now held in a museum.

That’s because the tag is one of the earliest texts from the oldest known writing system, Mesopotamian cuneiform, developed around 3,200 BC in the area of present-day Iraq. Like most surviving records from the time, it’s economic in nature, and about as riveting as a checkbook ledger. But the interesting part is not what these early texts said. It’s how they came to be.

These early texts beg the question: How was writing invented?

That question has at least four answers because writing was independently invented at least four times in human history: in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and Mesoamerica. The scripts of these civilizations are considered pristine, or developed from scratch by societies with no exposure to other literate cultures. All other writing systems are thought to be modeled after these four, or at least after the idea of them.

With future research, the number of pristine scripts could decrease, if archaeologists find evidence that any of these cultures copied the idea of writing from one another (most likely Mesopotamia and Egypt, because geography). And the number could grow, if other ancient symbol systems are deciphered and proven to represent true writing. But as it stands, most scholars believe that just these four scripts had independent origins.

The Steps to True Writing

True writing systems use graphic symbols to represent speech unambiguously. They allow literate people to write anything they can say, and have it read just as intended.

tally sticks

Bones from Stone Age sites over 10,000 years old have been found with successive incisions, which some archaeologists argue were tallies, keeping track of events like successful hunts or lunar phases. (Credit: Overmann 2016 Quaternary International 405)

Long before true writing — signs representing speech — people recorded ideas and information in other ways. For instance they drew pictures to depict events or used tallies to keep count of recurrent affairs. And today, long after the emergence of true writing, there are alternative systems like musical notation, mathematical symbols and the cartoon instructions for building IKEA furniture.

These systems convey certain concepts more efficiently or effectively than writing could. But they’re limited to particular kinds of information, and don’t transcribe speech word-for-word. We might (struggle to) build the IKEA desk the same way, but two people wouldn’t use exactly the same words to describe the steps (or expletives to mark the missteps).

Ikea Instructions

Perhaps someday scientists will understand this script.

The revolutionary idea to have signs that represent speech arose in distinct cultures and at different times: around 3,200 BC in Mesopotamia and Egypt,  around 1,200 BC in China and around 400 BC in Mesoamerica. Although the history of these scripts differs, they underwent broadly similar developmental stages.

The oldest surviving texts come from very specific contexts, such as economic transactions in Mesopotamia and divination rituals in China. The first characters were mainly pictographic signs, depicting exactly what they referred to. For example, in ancient Chinese script, “fish” was represented by a recognizable picture of a fish. Some signs were also borrowed from preexisting symbolic systems, such as emblems, tokens and pottery motifs, with which people were already familiar.

cuneiform over time

How cuneiform characters became less iconic and more stylized over time. (Credit: Lawrence Lo)

Over time the iconic characters became more stylized, so they were easier to write but resembled their referent object or action less. That “fish” sign got gradually less fishy, ultimately assuming its present-day form: 魚, a crossed box with a hook on top and four dashes radiating below.

Chinese character fish

How various Chinese characters developed over time to their present-day forms.

In another pivotal step, some characters came to signify sounds, rather than distinct, complete words (though the degree and pace by which phonetic symbols replaced whole-word signs differs between the scripts). This transition was aided by the rebus principle: swapping a word that’s difficult to depict graphically for its homonym, such as using the picture of an “eye” to represent “I”. To help differentiate characters with multiple meanings, the systems also added semantic markers that denoted parts of speech and context clues.

Through centuries of innovation, the scripts eventually advanced to the point of transcribing speech. This propelled writing infinitely beyond its original functions, into a tool capable of recording history, literature and messages — all the content filling our libraries, notes and text files today.

Adopted and modified by neighboring cultures, these scripts persisted for over a millennium. While the systems of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Mesoamerica eventually died out, the Chinese system has remained in continuous use for more than 3,000 years.

That’s the general story of writing, as told by the pristine scripts. Next, we’ll review how their origins differ and what archaeologists have gleaned from the earliest texts.

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Ecology

Yukon and Northern BC First Nations tackle climate change using Indigenous knowledge and science

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YUKON, June 18, 2021 /CNW/ – The Government of Canada is working together in partnership with Indigenous and Northern communities in finding solutions to adapt to the impacts of climate change in the North.

Today, Minister of Northern Affairs, Daniel Vandal, along with Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages (Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency), Larry Bagnell, highlighted progress on three unique, Indigenous-led projects that are helping communities in Yukon and Northern British Columbia adapt to the challenges posed by climate change.

The Minister and Parliamentary Secretary met virtually with Carcross/Tagish First Nation (C/TFN) to learn about their community-led climate change monitoring program. C/TFN has partnered with Tsay Keh Dene Nation (TKDN) and Chu Cho Environmental of Prince George, British Columbia, to build a community-led monitoring project that examines environmental data and Indigenous knowledge to create a holistic picture of how the climate is changing across C/TFN and TKDN traditional territories. The project combines tracking of current and historical climate trends with knowledge shared by Elders while also providing opportunities for youth mentorship and climate change awareness.

The Taku River Tlingit First Nation (TRTFN) is also leading a unique project to assess the impacts of climate change within their traditional territory. Climate change is causing many of the culturally significant ice patches to melt, exposing organic artifacts to oxygen and leading to rapid deterioration. The TRTFN ice patch mapping project will involve performing archaeological assessments to prevent the degradation of artifacts. Research will be guided by traditional knowledge, Elders and oral histories, when available, and heavily involve community, Elders, youth and Knowledge Keepers.

The Pelly Crossing Selkirk Development Corporation is leading the Selkirk Wind Resource Assessment project through the installation of a Sonic Detection and Ranging (SODAR) system. The initiative includes a feasibility study leading up to the construction of a renewable energy facility, including wind, solar and battery energy storage. Expanding clean energy within the region will have direct benefits for communities, including reduced reliance on diesel, job creation and revenue generation for Selkirk First Nation. 

These projects are delivering important environmental, social and economic benefits that lead to healthier, more sustainable and resilient communities across Yukon and Northern British Columbia. They also build community clean energy capacity and help to avoid the impacts of climate change.

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Ecology

Atlantic Provinces Ready For Aquaculture Growth

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Aquaculture is an important economic driver for rural, coastal and Indigenous communities, and Atlantic Canada is well positioned to increase aquaculture production as global demand for sustainably sourced seafood grows.

That is why the ministers responsible for aquaculture in the Atlantic provinces have agreed to the ongoing development and management of their industries based on common principles. A new memorandum of understanding has been signed by the four ministers, which extends the previous agreement signed in 2008.

“In a time when food security is especially important, it is good to see our aquaculture industry has grown steadily and is poised for continued growth in 2021 based on environmentally responsible, science-based policies and practices,” said Keith Colwell, Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture for Nova Scotia. “Our Atlantic partnership continues to help the industry grow sustainably.”

Cooperation between the provinces and the aquaculture industry has led to improvements in pest management, environmentally sustainable aquaculture methods, aquatic animal health and policies to support the shared use of marine and freshwater resources. It also aims to align regulation and policy between the provinces to make the regulatory requirements easier to understand by industry and the public.

Each province has a comprehensive and robust legislative and regulatory framework to ensure environmental sustainability, economic prosperity and public accountability. The provinces update their legislation and regulations regularly. Nova Scotia revamped its regulatory framework in 2015; New Brunswick received Royal Assent for a new Aquaculture Act in 2019 and is working on the supporting regulations; Newfoundland and Labrador completely revised its aquaculture policy in 2019; and Prince Edward Island has recently drafted a new Aquaculture Act.

The ministers have agreed to continue to use science-based evidence for management decisions, thereby increasing public and investor confidence in the Atlantic Canadian aquaculture industry.

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Ecology

COMING SOON: A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy 2.0

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We all want the same thing: a clean and responsible energy future for our children and future generations while continuing to enjoy a high standard of living.

On December 11, 2020, the Prime Minister announced a new climate plan which he claimed will help achieve Canada’s economic and environmental goals.

The proposed plan by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) entitled “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy” will have an initial investment of $15 billion of taxpayer’s money. It is built on 5 pillars of action:

  1) Making the Places Canadians Live and Gather More Affordable by Cutting Energy Waste

2) Making Clean, Affordable Transportation and Power Available in Every Community

3) Continuing to Ensure Pollution isn’t Free and Households Get More Money Back

4) Building Canada’s Clean Industrial Advantage

5) Embracing the Power of Nature to Support Healthier Families and More Resilient Communities  

In my paper, “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy 2.0” I will objectively critique each pillar in the government’s new climate plan and provide alternative solutions to the same issues.

  This is an alternative plan that supports workers, protects lower income earners and creates economic growth while respecting the environment and focusing on the dignity of work.

  This plan abandons virtue-signaling projects and relies on Canadian ingenuity to build our economy and restore Canada’s role of responsible leadership in the world.

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