Date: Mon Oct 21 2002 - 00:20:43 EDT
It's nice to have Glenn back from a busy trip.
<< Paul Wrote:
A review by A.Lawler, Science 292 (29 June 2001), 2418-2420, suggests
that the origin of writing has been pushed back to at least 3300 B.C.,
if not much earlier. "The prehistoric communication revolution" is
believed to have begun about 7000 B.C., but there seems to be very
little information dating to before 3500 B.C. In Mesopotamia, clay
tokens preceded real writing. To date, the earliest clay tablets found
at Uruk date to perhaps 3200 B.C. and early cuneiform to 3100 B.C. A
photograph of an example of "protocuneiform" dating to 3000 B.C. is
shown. One researcher called the early cuneiform "too good" to have been
developed in a haphazard way, implying sufficient sophistication to
write texts like early Genesis....
One needs to be aware that the earliest writing probably didn't happen in
Mesopotamia but either in Pakistan or Egypt.>>
I agree that the earliest true writing is from Egypt (see below). The
paragraph from Science is a quote from Peter Ruest before I began my comments.
<<Of Early Writing and a King of Legend
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD
Carved in the limestone of a desert cliff in Egypt is a 5,250-year-old
tableau of a victorious ruler, perhaps the so-called King Scorpion Û whose
exploits, previously the stuff of myth and legend, may have been critical to
the founding of Egyptian civilization. The archaeologists who discovered the
tableau seven years ago now say it may be the world's earliest historical
The report from AP says the writing on the clay tablets from the time of King
Scorpion (postage stamp size tablets) "have been carbon-dated with certainty
to between 3300 B.C. and 3200 B.C." which is in agreement with the dating of
the tableau. Since the earliest "writing" in Mesopotamia predates the Jemdat
Nasr phase which begins c. 3200--3100 BC, it would also date to c. 3200 BC,
and could be 3300 BC. But, there is an important difference. The writing from
the time of King Scorpion is not just pictographic; it is syllabic. As the
AP report says, "Although the records are made up of symbols, they are
considered true writing because each symbol stands for a consonant and makes
up syllables. For example, the city named Ba-set was written by putting
together a throne, known as Ba, and a stork, set" Syllabic writing does not
appear in Mesopotamia until the Jemdat Nasr period, c. 3100--3000, and at
that time it was just beginning to change over from pictographic to syllabic.
So if we bring Egypt into the picture, true writing existed there earlier
than in Mesopotamia. However, since the issue being discussed (colophons)
involves the writing habits of Mesopotamian scribes, I did not mention the
Egyptian writing and its dating because it was not germane.
'Earliest writing' found
The fragments of pottery are about 5,500 years old
Exclusive by BBC News Online Science Editor Dr
The first known examples of writing may have been unearthed
at an archaeological dig in Pakistan.
So-called 'plant-like' and 'trident-shaped' markings have
been found on fragments of pottery dating back 5500 years.
They were found at a site called Harappa in the region
where the great Harappan or Indus civilisation flourished
four and a half thousand years ago.
Harappa was originally a small settlement in 3500 BC but by
2600 BC it had developed into a major urban centre.
The earliest known writing was etched onto jars before and
after firing. Experts believe they may have indicated the
contents of the jar or be signs associated with a deity.
According to Dr Richard Meadow of Harvard University, the
director of the Harappa Archaeological Research Project,
these primitive inscriptions found on pottery may pre-date
all other known writing.
As Meadows says in the article you cite, "It's a big question as to if we can
call what we have found true writing," he told BBC News Online, "but we have
found symbols that have similarities to what became Indus script." Like the
earliest Sumerian "writing" I would not call this true writing. If one does
take it as writing, the earliest writing is probably from China:
At a Neolithic site in Henan province dated 6500 to 5500 BC, "several turtle
shells and a stone object were excavated, all engraved with particular signs.
Because some of these signs are _identical to later Chinese characters, some
scholars claimed that these represented the earliest writing in the world.
Certainly by comparison with the later divination texts inscribed on turtle
shells one cannot apriori rule out the possibility that these were short
texts with a symbolic meaning of some kind." [The evidence for early
writing: utilitarian or ceremonial? by N. Postgate, T. Wang, and T.
Wilkinson, Antiquity 69 (1995) 467]
The earliest writing in Mesopotamia is usually dated from c. 3200 BC. If one
says 3300, it really does not make any significant difference because it
would still be quite primitive. From 3200 to c. 3000 it is pictographs.
I am sorry, but pictographs are not primmitive in the sense that they are
limited in the ideas they can convey. Pictographic languages like Chinese
can convey any concept or idea the modern world has to offer. What
pictographic languages aren't, is compact. But compact is not a measure of
I was only talking about the purely pictographic language found at Uruk dated
c. 3200 or 3300 BC. As noted above, it was not developed into a true writing
system. There are 4000 tablets from that period, but none of them have
narrative. I am not an expert on Chinese, but it seems to have followed the
same course as Sumerian: first purely pictographic, then ideographic and
syllabic---which is why it now can communicate anything. It is no longer
A professor Richard Hooker from Washington State U, wrote "Chinese writing is
in part a ideogrammatic writing system and partly a syllabic writing system.
The earliest Chinese characters were pictures of the object being denoted, as
in the earliest Mesopotamian writing. Like Mesopotamian writing, this
pictographic writing eventually developed into a more simple, cursive way of
drawing the characters _rather than drawing the objects._ In Mesopotamia this
led to the development of cuneiform, in China this led to ideograms, which
are halfway between being a picture of the object and being an abstract
representation. In addition to ideogrammatic characters, some Chinese
characters simply represent syllables."
EB''s article on "Chinese Languages" says, "The Chinese writing system is
non-alphabetic. It applies a specific character to write each meaningful
syllable or each nonmeaningful syllabic that is part of a polysyllabic word."
The article on "Writing" in the Brittanica says, "Chinese is a language with
clearly distinguished syllables, each of which corresponds to a meaningful
unit, a morpheme."
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