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What Was the First Writing System?

What Was the First Writing System?

Written language is nothing but the physical manifestation of spoken language. It’s believed that homo sapiens developed their first language about 50,000 years ago[1]. Humans have found paintings of Cro-Magnons in caves, showing concepts of daily life.

Many of these paintings seem to tell a story, such as a hunting expedition, instead of simple drawings of people and animals. However, we cannot call it a writing system because there is no script written in these paintings.

The very first writing system, called cuneiform, was developed by ancient Mesopotamians.

Earliest Known Writing System

According to modern findings [2], ancient Mesopotamia was the first civilization to develop the first writing system. History tells us that Ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Mesoamericans also developed full writing systems.

  • Mesopotamia: People living in the Sumer (present-day Iraq) region of southern Mesopotamia invented the first writing system, cuneiform writing, back in 3,500 to 3,000 BC.
  • Egypt: Egyptians developed their writing system in 3,250 BC, similar to the one Sumerians developed. However, Egyptians made it more complex by adding logograms [3].
  • China: Chinese developed a fully operational writing system in 1,300 BC in the late Shang-dynasty [4].
  • Mesoamerica: Writing also appears in the historical evidence of 900 to 600 BC Mesoamerica [5].

Although it’s possible that the first writing system was the central point from where writing spread, there is no historical evidence showing the connection between these early writing systems.

Additionally, there are also many other places in different parts of the world, such as Rapa Nui and the Indus River valley, where people used to have some sort of writing system, but it still remains undeciphered.

Mesopotamian Writing System

As mentioned, cuneiform was the first writing system developed in the Sumer region of Mesopotamia. Its earliest form was more of pictographic writing, which involved clay tablets with engraved symbols.

A large cuneiform Inscription of Xerxes the Great on the cliffs below Van castle.
A large cuneiform Inscription of Xerxes the Great on the cliffs below Van castle
Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

But this pictorial writing gradually transformed into more complex phonetic writing with a complex system of symbols, syllables, and characters representing the sounds of Sumerian and other languages.

By the start of the 3rd millennium BC, Sumerians started using reed styluses to make wedge-shaped marks on wet clay, which is now called cuneiform writing.

Development of Cuneiform

In the next 600 years, the process of cuneiform writing stabilized, and it went through many changes. Symbols were simplified, curves were eliminated, and the direct link between the looks of objects and their corresponding pictograms was lost.

It’s important to note that the pictographic language form of Sumerians was initially written from top to bottom. However, people started writing and reading cuneiform from left to right.

Eventually, the King of the Akkadians, Sargon, attacked Sumer and defeated Sumerians in 2340 BC. By this time, people had already been using cuneiform script bilingually to write Akkadian as well.

Sargon was a powerful king, which allowed him to establish a large Empire that stretched from modern-day Lebanon to the Persian Gulf (as per a modern-day map).

As a result, as many as 15 languages, including Akkadian, Hurrian, and Hittite, started using the characters and symbols of the cuneiform script. Because of the advancements, Sumerians remained the learning language of that region until 200 BC.

However, the cuneiform script outdated the Sumerian language and continued serving as a writing system for other languages. The last known example of a document written in the cuneiform script is the astronomical text from 75 AD [6].

Who Used To Write Cuneiform

Mesopotamians used to have professional writers, called scribes or tablet writers. They were trained in the art of writing cuneiform and learned hundreds of different signs and symbols. Most of them were men, but some women could also become scribes.

Scribes were responsible for recording a wide range of information, including legal documents, religious texts, and accounts of daily life. They were also responsible for keeping track of trade and financial transactions and recording astronomical observations and other scientific knowledge.

Learning cuneiform was a slow and difficult process, and scribes had to memorize many signs, symbols, texts, and templates in different languages.

How Cuneiform Was Deciphered

The decipherment of cuneiform script started in the 18th century. European scholars at that time started searching for proof of the events and places mentioned in the Bible. They visited the ancient Near East and discovered many ancient artifacts, including clay tablets covered in cuneiform.

Deciphering these tablets was a challenging process, but gradually, the cuneiform signs representing different languages were deciphered. 

This was confirmed in 1857 when four scholars were able to independently translate a clay record of the military and hunting achievements of King Tiglath-pileser I [7].

The scholars, including William H. Fox Talbot, Julius Oppert, Edward Hincks, and Henry Creswicke Rawlinson, translated the record independently, and all the translations broadly agreed with one another.

The successful decipherment of cuneiform has allowed us to learn much more about the history and culture of ancient Mesopotamia, including trade, government, and great works of literature.

The study of cuneiform continues today, as there are still some elements that are not completely understood.

Egyptian Writing System

Stele of Minnakht (c. 1321 BC).
Stele of Minnakht (c. 1321 BC)
Louvre Museum, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The large-scale engraved ritual scenes found in El-Khawy in the form of rock art have pushed back the date for the invention of the writing system in Egypt. It’s believed that this rock art was made in 3250 BC [8], and it shows unique features similar to the early hieroglyphic forms.

After 3200 BC, Egyptians started engraving hieroglyphs on small ivory tablets. These tablets were used in graves at Abydos in the tomb of the ruler of Upper Egypt, the predynastic King Scorpion.

It’s important to note that the very first form of ink writing is also found in Egypt. According to the History of Pencils, they used reed pens to write on papyrus [9].

Chinese Writing System

The earliest forms of Chinese writing were found about 310 miles away from modern-day Beijing, on a Yellow River’s tributary. This area is now known as Anyang and it’s the place where the late Shang dynasty kings founded their capital.

Chinese calligraphy written by the poet Wang Xizhi (王羲之) of the Jin dynasty.
Chinese calligraphy written by the poet Wang Xizhi (王羲之) of the Jin dynasty
中文:王獻之English: Wang Xianzhi(344–386), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Ancient Chinese used to carry out divination rituals at this place using the bones of different animals. For centuries, farmers of this region had been finding and selling these bones as dragon bones to experts of traditional Chinese medicine.

However, in 1899, Wang Yirong, a scholar and politician, examined some of these bones and recognized the characters engraved on them just to realize their significance. They show a fully developed and complex writing system, which the Chinese not only used for communication but also to record their daily life events.

Most of the bones found in the 19th and 20th centuries in Anyang are turtle plastrons and shoulder blades of oxen.

Chinese have found more than 150,000 [10] of these bones to date and have documented over 4,500 different characters. While most of these characters remain undeciphered, some are used in the modern-day Chinese language, but their form and function have evolved considerably.

Mesoamerican Writing System

Recent discoveries show that pre-colonial Mesoamericans used a writing system around 900 BC. There were two different writing systems that people in this area used.

Closed System

It was tied to the grammatical and sound structures of a particular language and was used by specific linguistic communities, and worked similarly to the modern-day writing system. Examples of the closed system can be found in the Maya civilization [11].

Classic period Maya glyphs in stucco at the Museo de sitio in Palenque, Mexico.
Classic period Maya glyphs in stucco at the Museo de sitio in Palenque, Mexico
User:Kwamikagami, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Open System

Open system, on the other hand, wasn’t tied to the grammatical and sound structures of any specific language as it was used as a means of recording text. 

It served as a mnemonic technique, directing readers through text narratives without relying on the audience’s language knowledge. The open writing system was commonly used by Mexican communities living in central Mexico, such as the Aztecs.

Mayan artists or scribes, who used these systems, were usually the royal family‘s younger sons. 

The highest scribal position of that time was known as the Keepers of the Holy Books. People with this rank served as astronomers, masters of ceremonies, marriage arrangers, tribute recorders, genealogists, historians, and librarians.

It’s important to note that only four Mayan texts from the pre-colonial era and less than 20 from the entire region have survived. These scripts were written onto tree bark and deer skin, with the writing surface covered with gesso or polished lime paste.

Final Words

Cuneiform is considered to be the earliest known writing system. It was developed by the Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia and was used to record a wide range of information, including legal documents, religious texts, and accounts of daily life.

It was a complex system of writing and was adopted by several other communities in the region, including Akkadian, Hurrian, and Hittite. Although cuneiform is no longer used today, it remains an important part of human history.

Other than cuneiform script by Sumerians, many other civilizations also developed their writing systems, including Egyptians, Chinese, and Mesoamericans.