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How Humans Invented Writing — Four Different Times





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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Globe Climate: Canada’s resource reckoning is coming





Good afternoon, and welcome to Globe Climate, a newsletter about climate change, environment and resources in Canada.

This afternoon, the Alberta government announced that it is restoring a coal mining policy it revoked last spring. At the time, the move provoked a widespread public backlash detailed by The Globe. The original decision, which opened up more than 1.4 million hectares to exploration, was made without public consultation. Premier Jason Kenney previously defended the changes.

Lots more on coal and Canada’s resources industry in this week’s newsletter edition.

Now, let’s catch you up on other news.

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‘Incredibly destructive’: Canada’s Prairies to see devastating impact of climate change





As the climate continues to warm at an alarming rate, experts warn if dramatic steps to mitigate global warming are not taken, the effects in Canada’s Prairie region will be devastating to the country’s agriculture sector.

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, the country is warming, on average, about double the global rate.

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. recently found 2020 was earth’s second-hottest year on record, with the average land and ocean surface temperature across the globe at 0.98 of a degree C above the 20th-century average.

However, the agency found the northern hemisphere saw its hottest year on record, at 1.28 degrees C above the average.

“(In Canada) we are looking at about 6.4C degrees of warming this century, which isn’t much less than one degree per decade, which is just a terrifying rate of warming,” Darrin Qualman, the director of climate crisis policy and action at the National Farmer’s Union said.

Qualman said there is “massive change coming” to Canada’s Prairies, which will be “incredibly destructive.”

“It’s not going too far to say that if we made that happen, parts of the Prairies wouldn’t be farmable anymore,” he said.

According to the federal government, in 2018 Canada’s agriculture and agri-food system generated $143 billion, accounting for 7.4 per cent of the country’s GDP.

The sector employed 2.3 million people in 2018. The majority of the 64.2 million hectares of farmland in Canada is concentrated in the Prairies and in southern Ontario.

The effects of climate change are already being felt on the ground in the Prairies, Qualman said, adding that the NFU has already heard from farmers complaining of “challenging weather.”

“People are sharing pictures of flattened crops and buildings, et cetera, that have been damaged,” he said. “And we’re still at the beginning of this.”

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Insect-based dog food aims to cut your pet’s carbon pawprint





Meat has an enormous carbon footprint, with livestock liable for about 15 per cent of worldwide emissions, as we have beforehand mentioned on this e-newsletter. That is prompted specialists to suggest consuming much less meat for sustainability (and well being) causes.

However what about your pet? One research discovered that the methane and nitrous oxide emissions generated by canine and cat meals within the U.S. alone had been equal to about 64 million tonnes of CO2, or roughly the quantity produced by 13.6 million automobiles. And it might be getting worse, with a development towards feeding pets “human-grade” meat.

That is prompted some pet meals makers to look to lower-carbon protein sources — together with bugs.

Research present that producing insect-based meals requires far much less feed, land and water and generates far fewer greenhouse fuel emissions per kilogram than meats comparable to beef, pork or rooster.

That is one of many causes increasingly more pet meals containing insect protein are hitting the market. Purina, a model owned by multinational Nestlé, launched a line of canine and cat meals containing black soldier fly larvae in Switzerland in November.

In Canada, Montreal-based Wilder Harrier began promoting canine treats made with cricket protein in 2015 and pet food made with black soldier fly larvae in 2019. It plans to broaden to launch a line of insect-based cat treats later this yr and cat meals in 2022 due to “a ton of demand,” mentioned firm co-founder Philippe Poirier.

Wilder Harrier initially labored with animal nutritionists on insect-based merchandise to unravel a unique downside — specifically, the founders’ canines had allergy symptoms to frequent meats utilized in canine meals. Poirier mentioned now about half its prospects hunt down the product due to their pets’ allergy symptoms and about half for environmental causes.

Dr. Cailin Heinze, a U.S.-based veterinary nutritionist licensed by the American School of Veterinary Vitamin, has written concerning the environmental influence of pet meals. She mentioned we’re typically “not as involved as we probably ought to [be]” concerning the environmental footprint of pets.

Alternatively, she famous that the longer-term influence of newer diets, comparable to vegan meals and people containing bugs, hasn’t been nicely examined in comparison with conventional pet meals.

Maria Cattai de Godoy, an assistant professor of animal sciences on the College of Illinois who research novel proteins for pet meals (together with bugs, yeast and plant-based substances), mentioned such substances are rigorously examined to find out their security and diet earlier than being added to pet meals. 

“This can be a very extremely regulated trade,” she mentioned, however admitted it is also evolving.

Relating to bugs, she mentioned constructive information “reveals promise in direction of utilizing them increasingly more in pet meals.” Insect-based proteins have additionally earned the endorsement of the British Veterinary Affiliation, which says some insect-based meals could also be higher for pets than prime steak.

However Godoy famous that there isn’t any one-size-fits-all resolution, and pet homeowners ought to take into consideration the wants of their very own particular person pet and analysis whether or not a specific weight loss plan can be appropriate.

She mentioned that other than the kind of protein, issues like packaging and manufacturing strategies may also make a distinction. For instance, utilizing meat byproducts that may in any other case turn into waste would not drive elevated meat manufacturing the identical approach as utilizing human-grade meat.

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