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What the Earliest Texts Say About the Invention of Writing

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Early Chinese characters on an ox scapula used in divination rituals (Credit: wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oracle_bone)

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).

Examples of proto-cuneiform discovered at Uruk (Credit: http://cdli.ox.ac.uk/wiki/doku.php?id=proto-cuneiform)

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, arguably the world’s first city, on the Euphrates River in present-day Iraq. This is likely where cuneiform originated, and it seems to be a case of necessity being the mother of invention.

In the centuries surrounding the earliest texts (3100-3350 BC), Sumerian-controlled Uruk underwent substantial population growth from about 20,000 to 50,000 residents. Urbanization required sophisticated bookkeeping, so scholars think writing was devised to log transactions of goods and services. Though the idea of representing words with signs was novel, cuneiform built upon earlier methods of record keeping, including numerals, seals of authenticity and tokens, small clay pieces shaped into cones, crescents, and other geometric shapes, likely used for counting commodities during transactions.

Supporting the hypothesis that writing began out of economic necessity: Of the 5,000-plus texts recovered from this period, around 90 percent are administrative receipts and expenditures (chapter 2). They are clay tags or tablets, documenting exchanges of goats, barley and so forth — the hot items of the day. The remaining 10-ish percent of early texts includes scribes’ exercises to learn writing and lexical lists, or glossaries of words organized by theme like professions, animals or cities.

None of the early texts are page-turners (figuratively and literally … they didn’t have pages). That took time. Over the ages, cuneiform expanded beyond its initial accounting purposes and was used for writing letters, history and more. It also spread to other tongues. Cuneiform probably first transcribed Sumerian, the now-lost language spoken in Uruk. But during its 3,000-year existence, the script was adopted by many peoples, including speakers of Akkadian (the earliest written Semitic language, the family that includes Arabic and Hebrew) and Hittite (the earliest written Indo-European language, the family that includes most present-day languages of Europe and southwest Asia).

Inventions Elsewhere

The impetus for writing is less clear in Egypt, China and Mesoamerica. In these cases the oldest surviving texts, on durable materials, were almost certainly not the first created. Most scholars contend earlier records were made on perishable media, lost to the ages. Their reasoning: The earliest-known examples seem too developed in form and structure to be a society’s first stab at writing. Or they’re too restricted in use to necessitate a full writing system and literate folks to perpetuate it.

But here’s what we’ve got:

In Egypt, the claim of earliest-known texts belongs to about 200 postage-stamp sized tags made of ivory and bone, discovered in the late 1980s in an elite tomb called U-j in Abydos (chapters 5 and 6). Dating to around 3300 BC, the perforated tags were likely attached to commodities, subsequently nabbed by grave robbers. Each tag contained a simple inscription, a few signs resembling people, animals, geographic features, numerals and more. In total, about 50 distinct signs appear. Some are similar enough to classic hieroglyphs of later periods that many researchers accept these tags as early Egyptian writing.

Tags from tomb U-j, Abydos, which could represent the earliest Egyptian hieroglyphs (Credit: Lawer 2001 Science, http://science.sciencemag.org/content/292/5526/2418)

Tags from tomb U-j, Abydos, which could represent the earliest Egyptian hieroglyphs (Credit: Lawer 2001 /Science, http://science.sciencemag.org/content/292/5526/2418)

This discovery pushed Egyptian script back two centuries, to about the same time cuneiform emerged. And like Mesopotamia, during this period Egyptian society got more complex. Bureaucratic needs may have stimulated writing in Egypt, but it likely had other uses as well. Given the effort required to produce these fine tags and other early texts, writing may have also served religious or social functions — perhaps to distinguish the elite from commoners.

As for China, the oldest surviving texts are objectively cooler than those from Egypt and Mesopotamia. They come from contexts of divination and ancestor tribute, dating to around 1200 BC at the Anyang site in north China, the capital of the Shang dynasty. The inscriptions adorn bronze vessels containing offerings to deceased ancestors and oracle bones: cracked ox shoulder blades and turtle shells covered with text.

From Anyang, more than 133,000 inscribed oracle bone fragments have been recovered. They were used in divination rituals pertaining to matters such as harvests, birth and war. Royal parties would pose questions to the gods, like “Lady Hao’s childbearing lucky?” or “Week without disaster?” The oracle bones were then fractured; their cracks foretold the answer. Sometime later, scribes would return to the cracked surface and record the question, prognostication and outcome.

An incised turtle shell used as an oracle bone (Credit: Boltz 1986 World Archaeology, Vol 17)

An incised turtle shell used as an oracle bone (Credit: Boltz 1986 World Archaeology, Vol 17)

This Anyang writing was fully developed, with about 4000 standardized characters and the capacity to transcribe speech. The oracle bones and vessels would have been seen by few, just members of the royal inner circle. Consequently, scholars doubt this was the first Chinese writing. It was just the first to last.

Finally in Mesoamerica, the earliest surviving texts, which remain undeciphered, were carved onto monuments by the Olmec (roughly 500-900 BC) and Zapotec (by about 500 BC). Due to their rarity, we can’t say much about the origins of writing here. However these systems are thought to have inspired the Maya, whose ancient script is now mostly deciphered.

Example of Maya glyphs (Credit Kwamikagami, Wikipedia)

Example of Maya glyphs. (Credit: Kwamikagami/Wikipedia)

The Classic Maya civilization peaked around 1,500 years ago in the Yucatan region of Mesoamerica. Long before this golden age, the earliest uncontested Maya characters or glyphs appeared around 200-400 BC, carved or painted onto elite structures, including thrones, altars and palace walls, like at San Bartolo, Guatemala. Attempting to emulate their powerful, literate predecessors, Maya elite may have developed writing to adorn their buildings and goods as a status symbol. But then again, this view may be a consequence of preservation. If texts on perishable materials, like palm leaves, survived we would have a better understanding of the origins of Maya script and its antecedents.

There’s a lesson here for writers dreaming of achieving immortality through their work: Whatever you write about, what you write on matters too.

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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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