The History of Writing

I’d never given too much thought to the history of writing until now, beyond having the vague idea that it had started in what we now call the middle east, in a rich agricultural area based on virgin riverside topsoils.  Plenty of food  (time to do things other than hunt or dig, and food stores to keep track of)  and plenty of clay and reeds.

Written number systems originated in the same area (now part of Iraq) –

The earliest known writing for record keeping evolved from a system of counting using small clay tokens that began in Sumer about 8000 BC….

The cities of Sumer were the first civilization to practice intensive, year-round agriculture, by perhaps c. 5000 BC showing the use of core agricultural techniques, including large-scale intensive cultivation of land, mono-cropping, organized irrigation, and the use of a specialized labour force. The surplus of storable food created by this economy allowed the population to settle in one place, instead of migrating after crops and grazing land. It also allowed for a much greater population density, and in turn required an extensive labour force and division of labour.  Sumer was also the site of early development of writing, progressing from a stage of proto-writing in the mid 4th millennium BC to writing proper in the third millennium (see Jemdet Nasr period).

There is an interesting wiki page on the history of writing.  (enter into searchbox to access this page)

The earliest writing, and the first use of symbolic written numbers, were both concerned with recording the number of animals and the quantity of grain stores.

Counting and recording food stores was not an idle pastime, but necessary to calculate (and ration)  that sufficient grain was there to see the population through to the next expected harvest.

The earliest known writer of literature was a woman, an Akkadian princess from Sumer, called Enheduanna. (an example of her work –

Enheduanna was a magnificently powerful and expressive writer.  She was also a high priestess of the moon goddess – not coincidental perhaps, as the phases of the moon have traditionally been used a guide to optimal planting times.

Middle Bablyonian legal text in its envelope

The concept of writing spread outwards from Sumer, and new forms of writing were developed, one of the early ones being in Egypt. There were also, thousands of years later, completely separate developments of writing – in America ( Mexico)  first and also in China.  Both Mexico and China had complex agricultural systems in fertile, irrigated lands.

Writing is important to social development –

 The great benefit of writing systems is their ability to maintain a persistent record of information expressed in a language, which can be retrieved independently of the initial act of formulation.

Writing has made possible the accumulation of and rapid spread of knowledge and culture through large populations and has also allowed for an increasingly rapid development of new knowledge, standing on the shoulders of what was known before.

The benefits of writing were constrained when each copy had to be hand written. Many important works have been lost from that period.

The development of the printing press in the 15th century “cracked open” the potential of writing for societal development. Written works were far more accessible and less likely to be lost.

16th century press capable of printing 3,600 pages a day

The internet (developed in the 1950s-80s), likewise, provided for an exponential effect on the sharing and spread of knowledge, in that it is a much cheaper and more readily available global means of access to writing.

There are thousands of free books and articles (damn you, pay walls!)

Lee Kleinbeck and the first Interface Message Processor

All of these developments have come about on the back of the general level of technological and scientific development in society.

One would think that writing might be challenged by the development of telephony and recorded sound – I have just listened to a talk by Conor McCabe, on youtube, for example, that once would have been more likely shared by means of a pamphlet, or that would not have been heard beyond the initial live audience.

But writing is in many ways superior – a moment’s lapse of concentration when listening to a recording means the tedium of playback and listening again, maybe more than once. Reading a written version, one can go at one’s own pace.

Perhaps the next step will be some form of direct plug-in of information into the brain. 🙂

C. Flower  21/02/2012

One Response

  1. …some form of plug in of information into the brain…is already being tested 🙂

    Nice Post!

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