What a dull place it would be if we didn't know how our ancestors lived and thought. They must have thought so also and sought to define a system of recording their thoughts.


The way that the various systems of representing language through graphic means has evolved in different ways in human civilizations. More complete writing systems were preceded by proto-writing, systems of ideographic and/or early mnemonic symbol. True writing, in which the entire content of a linguistic utterance is encoded so that another reader can reconstruct, with a fair degree of accuracy, the exact utterance written down, is a later development, and is distinguished from proto-writing in that the latter typically avoids encoding grammatical words and affixes, making it difficult or impossible to confidently reconstruct the exact meaning intended by the writer unless a great deal of context is already known in advance.



Babylonian legal tablet writing history


Babylonian legal tablet writing history


Invention of writing


Writing numbers for record keeping began long before the writing of language. See History of writing ancient numbers for how the writing of numbers began.

It is generally agreed that true writing of language (not only numbers) was invented independently in at least two places: Mesopotamia (specifically, ancient Sumer) around 3200 BC and Mesoamerica around 600 BC. Twelve Mesoamerican scripts are known, the oldest from the Olmec or Zapotec of Mexico.

It is debated whether writing was developed completely independently in Egypt around 3200 BC and China around 1200 BC, or whether the appearance of writing in either or both places was due to cultural diffusion (i.e. the concept of representing language using writing, if not the specifics of how such a system worked, was brought by traders from an already-literate civilization).

Chinese characters are most probably an independent invention, because there is no evidence of contact between China and the literate civilizations of the Near East, and because of the distinct differences between the Mesopotamian and Chinese approaches to logography and phonetic representation. Egyptian script is dissimilar from Mesopotamian cuneiform, but similarities in concepts and in earliest attestation suggest that the idea of writing may have come to Egypt from Mesopotamia. In 1999, Archaeology Magazine reported that the earliest Egyptian glyphs date back to 3400 BCE which "...challenge the commonly held belief that early logographs, pictographic symbols representing a specific place, object, or quantity, first evolved into more complex phonetic symbols in Mesopotamia."

Similar debate surrounds the Indus script of the Bronze Age Indus Valley civilization in Ancient India 2200 BC, with the additional provisos that the script is still undeciphered and that there is debate over whether the script is true writing at all, or some kind of proto-writing or non-linguistic sign system.

An additional possibility is the undeciphered rongorongo script of Easter Island. However, it is debated whether this system is true writing at all, and if it is, whether it is yet another case of cultural diffusion of writing. The oldest example is from 1851, 139 years after their first contact with Europeans. The most probable explanation is that the script was inspired by Spain's written annexation proclamation in 1770.

Various other known cases of cultural diffusion of writing exist, where the general concept of writing was transmitted from one culture to another but the specifics of the system were independently developed. Recent examples are the Cherokee syllabary, invented by Sequoyah, and the Pahawh Hmong system for writing the Hmong language.

Writing systems

Writing systems are distinguished from other possible symbolic communication systems in that one must usually understand something of the associated spoken language to comprehend the text. By contrast, other possible symbolic systems such as information signs, painting, maps, and mathematics often do not require prior knowledge of a spoken language. Every human community possesses language, a feature regarded by many as an innate and defining condition of mankind. However the development of writing systems, and the process by which they have supplanted traditional oral systems of communication has been sporadic, uneven and slow. Once established, writing systems on the whole change more slowly than their spoken counterparts, and often preserve features and expressions which are no longer current in the spoken language. 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.

Recorded history and pre-history

Before Homo (Pliocene) - Three-age system prehistory - Stone Age:

Lower Paleolithic: Homo, Homo erectus,
Middle Paleolithic: early Homo sapiens
Upper Paleolithic: behavioral modernity
Neolithic: civilization

Bronze Age

Near East • India • Europe • China • Korea
Iron Age
Bronze Age collapse • Ancient Near East • India • Europe • China Japan • Korea • Nigeria

Recorded History

Ancient history 

Middle Ages (Early - High - Late)

Modern history (Early - Late - Contemporary)


Scholars make a reasonable distinction between prehistory and history of early writing, but have disagreed concerning when prehistory becomes history and when proto-writing became "true writing". The definition is largely subjective. Writing, in its most general terms, is a method of recording information and is composed of glyphs (also known as graphemes).

The emergence of writing in a given area is usually followed by several centuries of fragmentary inscriptions. With the presence of coherent texts (from the various writing systems and the systems' associated literature), historians mark the "historicity" of that culture.

The invention of writing was not a one-time event, but a long evolution preceded by the appearance of symbols, possibly first for cultic purposes. Canadian researchers from the University of Victoria suggest that symbolism was used by cave painters of the Neolithic Age. "...von Petzinger and Nowell were surprised by the clear patterning of the symbols across space and time – some of which remained continually in use for over 20,000 years. The 26 specific signs may provide the first glimmers of proof that a graphic code was being used by these ancient humans shortly after their arrival in Europe from Africa, or they may have even brought this practice with them. If correct, these findings will contribute to the growing body of evidence that the “creative explosion” occurred tens of thousands of years earlier than scholars once thought."

Greek alphabet on a clay dish


Greek alphabet on an ancient clay dish



Developmental stages


A conventional "proto-writing to true writing" system follows a general series of developmental stages:

Picture writing system: glyphs directly represent objects and ideas or objective and ideational situations. In connection with this the following substages may be distinguished: 

1.The mnemonic: glyphs primarily a reminder;

2.The pictographic (pictography): glyphs represent directly an object or an objective situation such as (A) chronological, (B) notices, (C) communications, (D) totems, titles, and names, (E) religious, (F) customs, (G) historical, and (H) biographical;

3.The ideographic (ideography): glyphs represent directly an idea or an ideational situation.
Transitional system: glyphs refer not only to the object or idea which it represents but to its name as well.

Phonetic system: glyphs refer to sounds or spoken symbols irrespective of their meanings. This resolves itself into the following substages: 

1.The verbal: glyph (logogram) represents a whole word;
2.The syllabic: glyph represent a syllable;
3.The alphabetic: glyph represent an elementary sound.
The best known picture writing system of ideographic and/or early mnemonic symbols are:

a) Jiahu symbols, carved on tortoise shells in Jiahu, ca. 6600 BC
b) Vinča signs (Tărtăria tablets), ca. 5300 BC


Early Indus script, ca. 3500 BC

In the Old World, true writing systems developed from neolithic writing in the Early Bronze Age (4th millennium BC). The Sumerian archaic cuneiform script and the Egyptian hieroglyphs are generally considered the earliest true writing systems, both emerging out of their ancestral proto-literate symbol systems from 3400–3200 BC with earliest coherent texts from about 2600 BC.

Literature and writing


Literature and writing, though obviously connected, are not synonymous. The very first writings from ancient Sumer by any reasonable definition do not constitute literature – the same is true of some of the early Egyptian hieroglyphics or the thousands of logs from ancient Chinese regimes. The history of literature begins with the history of writing and the notion of "literature" has different meanings depending on who is using it. Scholars have disagreed concerning when written record-keeping became more like literature than anything else and is largely subjective. It could be applied broadly to mean any symbolic record, encompassing everything from images and sculptures to letters. The oldest literary texts that have come down to us date to a full millennium after the invention of writing, to the late 3rd millennium BC. The earliest literary authors known by name are Ptahhotep and Enheduanna, dating to ca. the 24th and 23rd centuries BC, respectively. In the early literate societies, as much as 600 years passed from the first inscriptions to the first coherent textual sources (ca. 3200 to 2600 BC).

Locations and timeframe

Example of the Jiahu symbols, a writing-like markings, found on tortoise shells were dated around 6000 BC.The first writing systems of the Early Bronze Age were not a sudden invention. Rather, they were a development based on earlier traditions of symbol systems that cannot be classified as writing proper, but have many characteristics strikingly similar to writing. These systems may be described as proto-writing. They used ideographic and/or early mnemonic symbols to convey information yet were probably devoid of direct linguistic content. These systems emerged in the early Neolithic period, as early as the 7th millennium BC.

The Vinča signs show an evolution of simple symbols beginning in the 7th millennium BCE, gradually increasing in complexity throughout the 6th millennium and culminating in the Tărtăria tablets of ca. 5300 BC with their rows of symbols carefully aligned, evoking the impression of a "text".

The Dispilio Tablet of the late 6th millennium is similar. The hieroglyphic scripts of the Ancient Near East (Egyptian, Sumerian proto-Cuneiform and Cretan) seamlessly emerge from such symbol systems, so that it is difficult to say at what point precisely writing emerges from proto-writing. Adding to this difficulty is the fact that very little is known about the symbols' meanings.

In 2003, tortoise shells were found in 24 Neolithic graves excavated at Jiahu, Henan province, northern China, with radiocarbon dates from the 7th millennium BC. According to some archaeologists, the symbols carved on the shells had similarities to the late 2nd millennium BC oracle bone script. Others have dismissed this claim as insufficiently substantiated, claiming that simple geometric designs such as those found on the Jiahu shells cannot be linked to early writing.

Even after the Neolithic, several cultures have gone through a period of using systems of proto-writing as an intermediate stage before the adoption of writing proper. The "Slavic runes" (7th/8th century) mentioned by a few medieval authors may have been such a system. The Quipu of the Incas (15th century), sometimes called "talking knots", may have been of a similar nature. Another example is the system of pictographs invented by Uyaquk before the development of the Yugtun syllabary (ca. 1900).

Bronze Age writing

Writing emerged in a variety of different cultures in the Bronze age. Examples include the cuneiform writing of the Sumerians, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese logographs, and the Olmec script of Mesoamerica. The Chinese script likely developed independently of the Middle Eastern scripts, around 1600 BC. The pre-Columbian Mesoamerican writing systems (including among others Olmec and Maya scripts) are also generally believed to have had independent origins. It is thought that the first true alphabetic writing was developed around 2000 BC for Semitic workers in the Sinai by giving mostly Egyptian hieratic glyphs Semitic values. The Ge'ez writing system of Ethiopia is considered Semitic. It is likely to be of semi-independent origin, having roots in the Meroitic Sudanese ideogram system. Most other alphabets in the world today either descended from this one innovation, many via the Phoenician alphabet, or were directly inspired by its design. In the case of Italy, about 500 years passed from the early Old Italic alphabet to Plautus (750 to 250 BC), and in the case of the Germanic peoples, the corresponding time span is again similar, from the first Elder Futhark inscriptions to early texts like the Abrogans (ca. 200 to 750 CE).

Cuneiform script 

The original Sumerian writing system derives from a system of clay tokens used to represent commodities. By the end of the 4th millennium BC, this had evolved into a method of keeping accounts, using a round-shaped stylus impressed into soft clay at different angles for recording numbers. This was gradually augmented with pictographic writing using a sharp stylus to indicate what was being counted. Round-stylus and sharp-stylus writing were gradually replaced around 2700-2500 BC by writing using a wedge-shaped stylus (hence the term cuneiform), at first only for logograms, but developed to include phonetic elements by the 29th century BC. About 2600 BC cuneiform began to represent syllables of the Sumerian language. Finally, cuneiform writing became a general purpose writing system for logograms, syllables, and numbers. From the 26th century BC, this script was adapted to the Akkadian language, and from there to others such as Hurrian, and Hittite. Scripts similar in appearance to this writing system include those for Ugaritic and Old Persian.

Egyptian hieroglyphs

Writing was very important in maintaining the Egyptian empire, and literacy was concentrated among an educated elite of scribes. Only people from certain backgrounds were allowed to train to become scribes, in the service of temple, pharisaic, and military authorities. The hieroglyph system was always difficult to learn, but in later centuries may have been intentionally made even more difficult, as this preserved the scribes' position.

Various scholars believe that Egyptian hieroglyphs "came into existence a little after Sumerian script, and ... probably [were]... invented under the influence of the latter ...", although it is pointed out and held that "the evidence for such direct influence remains flimsy” and that “a very credible argument can also be made for the independent development of writing in Egypt..."

Elamite scripts

The undeciphered Proto-Elamite script emerges from as early as 3200 BC and evolves into Linear Elamite by the later 3rd millennium, which is then replaced by Elamite Cuneiform adopted from Akkadian.

Indus scripts

Sequence of ten Indus signs discovered near the northern gate of the Indus site DholaviraThe Middle Bronze Age Indus script which dates back to the early Harappan phase of around 3000 BC in ancient north western India and what is now Pakistan, has not yet been deciphered. It is unclear whether it should be considered an example of proto-writing (a system of symbols or similar), or if it is actual writing of the logographic-syllabic type of the other Bronze Age writing systems. Mortimer Wheeler recognises the style of writing as boustrophedon, where "this stability suggests a precarious maturity".

Anatolian hieroglyphs

Anatolian hieroglyphs are an indigenous hieroglyphic script native to western Anatolia first appearing on Luwian royal seals from the 14th century BC, used to record the Hieroglyphic Luwian language.

Cretan and Greek scripts


Cretan hieroglyphs, Linear A, and Linear B

Cretan hieroglyphs are found on artifacts of Crete (early-to-mid-2nd millennium BC, MM I to MM III, overlapping with Linear A from MM IIA at the earliest). Linear B, the writing system of the Mycenaean Greeks, has been deciphered while Linear A has yet to be deciphered. The sequence and the geographical spread of the three overlapping, but distinct writing systems can be summarized as follows:

Writing system Geographical area Time span
Cretan Hieroglyphic Crete ca. 1625−1500 BC
Linear A Aegean islands (Kea, Kythera, Melos, Thera), and Greek mainland (Laconia) ca. 18th century−1450 BC
Linear B Crete (Knossos), and mainland (Pylos, Mycenae, Thebes, Tiryns) ca. 1375−1200 BC



Early Semitic alphabets

The first pure alphabets (properly, "abjads", mapping single symbols to single phonemes, but not necessarily each phoneme to a symbol) emerged around 1800 BC in Ancient Egypt, as a representation of language developed by Semitic workers in Egypt, but by then alphabetic principles had a slight possibility of being inculcated into Egyptian hieroglyphs for upwards of a millennium. These early abjads remained of marginal importance for several centuries, and it is only towards the end of the Bronze Age that the Proto-Sinaitic script splits into the Proto-Canaanite alphabet (ca. 1400 BC) Byblos syllabary and the South Arabian alphabet (ca. 1200 BC). The Proto-Canaanite was probably somehow influenced by the undeciphered Byblos syllabary and in turn inspired the Ugaritic alphabet (ca. 1300 BC).

Chinese writing

In China, historians have learned much about the early Chinese dynasties from the written documents left behind. From the Shang Dynasty most of this writing has survived on bones or on bronze. Markings on turtle shells, or jiaguwen, are attested from the late Shang (1200–1050 BC). The writings from the Shang Dynasty are the direct ancestor of modern Chinese characters used throughout East Asia.

Mesoamerican writing

A stone slab with 3,000-year-old writing was discovered in the Mexican state of Veracruz, and is an example of the oldest script in the Western Hemisphere preceding the oldest Zapotec writing dated to about 500 BC.

Of several pre-Columbian scripts in Mesoamerica, the one that appears to have been best developed, and fully deciphered, is the Maya script. The earliest inscriptions which are identifiably Maya date to the 3rd century BC, and writing was in continuous use until shortly after the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century AD. Maya writing used logograms complemented by a set of syllabic glyphs, somewhat similar in function to modern Japanese writing.

Iron Age writing

The Phoenician alphabet is simply the Proto-Canaanite alphabet as it was continued into the Iron Age (conventionally taken from a cut-off date of 1050 BC). This alphabet gave rise to the Aramaic and Greek, as well as, likely via Greek transmission, to various Anatolian and Old Italic (including the Latin) alphabets in the 8th century BC. The Greek alphabet for the first time introduces vowel signs. The Brahmic family of India originated independently. The Greek and Latin alphabets in the early centuries of the Common Era gave rise to several European scripts such as the Runes and the Gothic and Cyrillic alphabets while the Aramaic alphabet evolved into the Hebrew, Syriac and Arabic abjads and the South Arabian alphabet gave rise to the Ge'ez abugida.

Writing in antiquity 

Early Greek alphabet on pottery in the National Archaeological Museum of AthensIn history of the Greek alphabet, the Greeks borrowed the Phoenician alphabet and adapted it to their own language. The letters of the Greek alphabet are the same as those of the Phoenician alphabet, and both alphabets are arranged in the same order. The adapter of the Phoenician system also added three letters to the end of the series, called the "supplementals." Several varieties of the Greek alphabet developed. One, known as Western Greek or Chalcidian, was used west of Athens and in southern Italy. The other variation, known as Eastern Greek, was used in present-day Turkey and by the Athenians, and eventually the rest of the world that spoke Greek adopted this variation. After first writing right to left, the Greeks eventually chose to write from left to right, unlike the Phoenicians who wrote from right to left. Greek is in turn the source for all the modern scripts of Europe.

A tribe known as the Latins, who became known as the Romans, also lived in the Italian peninsula like the Western Greeks. From the Etruscans, a tribe living in the first millennium BCE in central Italy, and the Western Greeks, the Latins adopted writing in about the 5th century. Previously using their native Anglo-Saxon runes, the Anglo-Saxons began using Roman letters to write Old English as they Christianized from Anglo-Saxon paganism following Augustine of Canterbury's mission to Britain in the 6th century.

Medieval writing


A "Renaissance" of classical education would appear in Carolingian Empire in the 8th century.

Modern writing


The nature of writing has been constantly evolving, particularly due to the development of new technologies over the centuries. The pen, the printing press, the computer and the mobile phone are all technological developments which have altered what is written, and the medium through which the written word is produced. Particularly with the advent of digital technologies, namely the computer and the mobile phone, characters can be formed by the press of a button, rather than making the physical motion with the hand.

The nature of the written word had evolved over time to make way for an informal, colloquial written style, where an everyday conversation can occur through writing rather than speaking. Written communication can also be delivered with minimal time delay (e-mail, SMS), and in some cases, with an imperceptible time delay (instant messaging). Socially, writing is seen as an authoritative means of communication, from legal documentation, law and the media all produced through the medium. The growth of multimedia literacy can be seen as the first steps toward a postliterate society.

Materials of writing

There is no very definite statement as to the material which was in most common use for the purposes of writing at start of the early writing systems. In all ages it has been customary to engrave on stone or metal, or other durable material, with the view of securing the permanency of the record; and accordingly, in the very commencement of the national history of Israel, it is read of the two tables of the law written in stone, and of a subsequent writing of the law on stone. In the latter case there is this peculiarity, that plaster (sic, lime or gypsum) was used along with stone, a combination of materials which is illustrated by comparison of the practice of the Egyptian engravers, who, having first carefully smoothed the stone, filled up the faulty places with gypsum or cement, in order to obtain a perfectly uniform surface on which to execute their engravings. Metals, such as stamped coins, are mentioned as a material of writing; they include lead, brass, and gold. To the engraving of gems there is reference also, such as with seals or signets.

The common materials of writing were the tablet and the roll, the former probably having a Chaldean origin, the latter an Egyptian. The tablets of the Chaldeans are among the most remarkable of their remains. There are small pieces of clay, somewhat rudely shaped into a form resembling a pillow, and thickly inscribed with cuneiform characters. Similar use has been seen in hollow cylinders, or prisms of six or eight sides, formed of fine terra cotta, sometimes glazed, on which the characters were traced with a small stylus, in some specimens so minutely as to be capable of decipherment only with the aid of a magnifying-glass.

In Egypt the principal writing material was quite of a different sort. Wooden tablets are indeed found pictured on the monuments; but the material which was in common use, even from very ancient times, was the papyrus. This reed, found chiefly in Lower Egypt, had various economic means for writing, the pith was taken out, and divided by a pointed instrument into the thin pieces of which it is composed; it was then flattened by pressure, and the strips glued together, other strips being placed at right angles to them, so that a roll of any length might be manufactured. Writing seems to have become more widespread with the invention of papyrus in Egypt. That this material was in use in Egypt from a very early period is evidenced by still existing papyrus of the earliest Theban dynasties. As the papyrus, being in great demand, and exported to all parts of the world, became very costly, other materials were often used instead of it, among which is mentioned leather, a few leather mills of an early period having been found in the tombs. Parchment, using sheepskins left after the wool was removed for cloth, was sometimes cheaper than papyrus, which had to be imported outside Egypt. With the invention of wood-pulp paper, the cost of writing material thankfully began a steady decline, so that ordinary folk could afford to jot down their ideas.





History of Writing. historian.net

Alphabet & protoalphabet the manifest of astrologic doctrine?

The New Post-Literate

Denise Schmandt-Besserat  HomePage

Children of the Code: A Brief History of Writing – Online Video


Cracking the Maya Code. NOVA, Public Broadcasting Service. (Timeline (flash))

BBC on tortoise shells discovered in China

Fragments of pottery discovered in modern Pakistan

Egyptian hieroglyphs c. 3000 BC









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