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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

Today’s letters: ‘Visionary’ plans don’t always work in Ottawa

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The opinion piece written by Tobi Nussbaum, CEO of the NCC, declares that a “bold, visionary transit plan” would showcase the capital.

As a long-term resident of Ottawa, I’ve had it with visionary plans. In the 1950s, the streetcars serving Ottawa so well were sent to the scrapyards. In the early ’60s, Queensway construction bulldozed established neighbourhoods and ripped the city apart. Later in the decade, the downtown railway station, which could have formed the hub of a commuter network, was relocated to the suburbs. These actions, in the name of “progress,” were undertaken with the “vision” to make Ottawa a car-reliant city.

Now we have an LRT, built just in time for most people to realize that they do not have to go downtown as they can work from home.

Current thinking is pushing a new “link” between Ottawa and Gatineau, with yet more expensive and disruptive infrastructure projects being touted, including a tramway or another tunnel under the downtown core.

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Ecology

That was then: Biggest earthquake since 1653 rocked Ottawa in 1925

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A regular weekly look-back at some offbeat or interesting stories that have appeared in the Ottawa Citizen over its 175-year history. Today: The big one hits.

The Ottawa Senators were playing a Saturday night game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Auditorium, the score tied 0-0 halfway through the second period. Sens’ rookie Ed Gorman and the Habs’ Billy Boucher had just served penalties for a dustup when the building began to make “ominous creaking sounds.” A window crashed to the ground.

Nearby, at Lisgar Collegiate, all eyes were on teenager Roxie Carrier, in the role of Donna Cyrilla in the musical comedy El Bandido. She had the stage to herself and was singing “Sometime” when the building rocked, the spotlight went out, and someone in the audience yelled “Fire!”

At a home on Carey Avenue, one woman’s normally relaxed cat suddenly arched its back, rushed around the room two or three times, spitting angrily, and climbed up the front-window curtains.

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Ecology

Ottawa delays small nuclear reactor plan as critics decry push for new reactors

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TORONTO — Canadians will have to wait a little while longer to see the federal government’s plan for the development of small nuclear reactors, seen by proponents as critical to the country’s fight against global warming.

Speaking at the opening of a two-day virtual international conference on Wednesday, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of natural resources said the plan will lay out key actions regarding the reactors. Its launch, Paul Lefebvre said, would come in the next few weeks.

“We’re still putting the finishing touches on it,” Lefebvre said. “The action plan is too important to be rushed.”

Small modular reactors — SMRs — are smaller in size and energy output than traditional nuclear power units, and more flexible in their deployment. While conventional reactors produce around 800 megawatts of power, SMRs can deliver up to 300 megawatts.

Proponents consider them ideal as both part of the regular electricity grid as well as for use in remote locations, including industrial sites and isolated northern communities. They could also play a role in the production of hydrogen and local heating.

“SMRs will allow us to take a bold step of meeting our goal of net-zero (emissions) by 2050 while creating good, middle class jobs and strengthening our competitive advantage,” said Lefebvre.

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan had been scheduled to speak at the conference but did not due to a family emergency.

Industry critics were quick to pounce on the government’s expected SMR announcement. They called on Ottawa to halt its plans to fund the experimental technology.

While nuclear power generation produces no greenhouse gas emissions, a major problem facing the industry is its growing mound of radioactive waste. This week, the government embarked on a round of consultations about what do with the dangerous material.

Dozens of groups, including the NDP, Bloc Quebecois, Green Party and some Indigenous organizations, oppose the plan for developing small modular reactors. They want the government to fight climate change by investing more in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

“We have options that are cheaper and safer and will be available quicker,” Richard Cannings, the NDP natural resources critic, said in a statement.

Lefebvre, however, said the global market for SMRs is expected to be worth between $150 billion and $300 billion a year by 2040. As one of the world’s largest producers of uranium, Canada has to be part of the wave both for economic and environmental reasons, he said.

“There’s a growing demand for smaller, simpler and affordable nuclear technology energy,” Lefebvre said.

Joe McBrearty, head of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, told the conference the company had signed a host agreement this week with Ottawa-based Global First Power for a demonstration SMR at its Chalk River campus in eastern Ontario. A demonstration reactor will allow for the assessment of the technology’s overall viability, he said.

“When talking about deploying a new technology like an SMR, building a demonstration unit is vital to the success of that process,” McBrearty said. “Most importantly, it allows the public to see the reactor, to kick the tires so to speak, and to have confidence in the safety of its operation.”

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