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When Was Writing Invented

    That is true, but not the entire story, as the written word has been invented many times over, responding to similar social developments as those I have sketched out above. Writing is thought to have been invented 6000 years ago, in 4000 BCE, in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). Based on the evidence for written texts that have survived, humans invented writing somewhere in Mesopotamia sometime between 3400 BC and 3300 BC. Sumerian civilization developed writing for the first time in about 3400 BCE, when they began to mark clay tablets with a script known as Cuneiform.

    The Phoenician writing system, while very different from Mesopotamias, is nonetheless due to Sumerians development and advances in written language. The Egyptian writing system was already used prior to the emergence of the early dynastic period (c. 3150 BC), and is thought to have developed from Mesopotamian cuneiform (although this theory is disputed) and came to be known as Heiroglyphic. At around this same time, or slightly after, Egyptians invented their own form of hieroglyphic writing. Historians believe that the Egyptian script – the well-known hieroglyphs – developed independently soon after, under similar circumstances.

    The first surviving inscriptions, which are far too complex, are far from being the earliest uses of written language. Unfortunately, much less is known about these texts than is known about early writing in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China. The early writing systems developed independently in and around the same time in Egypt and Mesopotamia, but contemporary scholarship suggests that the Mesopotamian scripts appeared earlier. Evidence for early roots in writing dates to about 3000 BC, during Egypts and Mesopotamias respective times, and to about 3,000 BC in China, independently.

    Independently from the Middle East or Europe, writing developed in Mesoamerica with the Mayans around 250C, some evidence suggesting as early as 500BC, and, again independently, the Chinese. Writing in China developed from divination rituals using a tusk oracle c. 1200 BC, and appears also to have originated independently, since no evidence exists for cultural transmission at that time between China and Mesopotamia. If Chinese writing is considered to be a written language, Chinese writing would have preceded the cuneiform scripts from Mesopotamia, long recognized as the earliest written language, by about 2000 years; however, it is more likely that writing was instead a proto-writing, resembling modern-day Vinca scripts from Europe. The Chinese writing system was certainly invented well before it appeared, for as early as its emergence, there were already between three and five thousand characters in the logographic signs.

    The Chinese probably invented written languages on their own, but it is likely that the Chinese got the idea through trade with Egypt and Mesopotamia, where written languages were used for a little more than 1,500 years before appearing in Chinese. Early written systems imported from other cultures evolved into written languages in those cultures, such that Greek and Latin became the foundations of European writing, just as Chinese writing was going to provide the foundations of Hebrew, Arabic, and perhaps Sanskrit. The written languages of Indus Valley civilizations dating from almost 2000 BCE were probably inspired by Mesopotamian writing systems too, since peoples on the Tigris-Euphrates river were in regular trade contact with those on the Indus. The enigmatic Indus Valley civilisation of India began to write in writing scripts about 3,000 BC, though they are yet to be deciphered.

    Sumerian Archaic (pre-cuneiform) and Egyptian Hieroglyphics are usually considered to be the first truly written systems, both emerging from the ancestral proto-literate system of symbols around 3400-3100 BC, with early consistent texts beginning about 2600 BC. Examples are Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Cretan hieroglyphs, Chinese characters, the Indus script, and Olmec Mesoamerican scripts. Writing–a system of graphical marks representing units in a particular language–was invented independently in the Middle East, China, and Mesoamerica.

    Cuneiform is a writing style developed in the Near East by Sumerian and Babylonian peoples, which uses symbols to represent sounds instead of things described. Mesopotamian Cuneiform was the first widely recognized writing style, created by pressing a stylus with reeds onto soft clay and letting it solidify.

    The characters are formed by wedge-shaped marks made by a reed that is cut acutely as it is forced into damp clay, and the writing style became known as cuneiform (from Latin cunei, meaning wedge). In Mesopotamia, clay remains the most common writing surface, and the standard writing implement becomes the tip of a sharply cut reed. The script is something like proto-cuneiform–an earlier, pictorial phase of writing development in Mesopotamia.

    It is the easiest early form of writing to study (relatively, at least, because we are talking 5,000-plus-year-old specimens) because Sumerians living there cut out their characters into clay, which was then baked. In Mesopotamia, though, people wrote on sturdy clay tablets that survived in enormous numbers, so you can track the progression of their earliest writing.

    Of these three systems of writing, then, only the first, the Mesopotamian Cuneiform script, invented at Sumer, in modern-day Iraq, in 3200 BCE, can be traced over 10,000 years with no interruptions, starting with the prehistoric precursors of the alphabet. Although they are the oldest written forms known to scholars from China, there are probably several other earlier forms of writing which occurred before humans reached an advanced, 4,000-character stage of written language in 1200 BCE.

    Living in a society with high literacy rates, it is tempting to think those first inventors wanted to record stories and pass them on to future generations. Invented is dwarfed by the accomplishments of those inventors, who created written language from scratch, in an age where written language did not exist elsewhere in the known world.

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