Invention of Writing

It’s impossible to designate a clear winner in the race to invent writing, because writing wasn’t invented in a day. Instead, it slowly developed from the earliest primitive hash marks to count. People were using such hash marks as early as 50,000 BC. Around 4000 BC, a number of civilizations were making more complex marks to record various interesting bits of information. The Indus River civilization made some interesting marks on its pottery, but they were not quite writing.

The big breakthrough seems to have come from the Sumerians or their predecessors, and it was triggered by the new-fangled concept of the “city-state”. One farming village grew larger than its neighbors, brought everybody together into one big unhappy family, and established itself as the dominant city in the area. The specialists who lived in the city provided special services (such as calendars, grain storage, and security) that made the system workable. The farmers in the surrounding area were obliged to bring their agricultural products into the city for redistribution. This was the earliest form of taxation.

Unfortunately, a nasty snag quickly developed. The royal accountant would send out a message to one of his minions to collect taxes from Farmer Bob. The minion would go to Farmer Bob’s place and present his tax bill: 3 cows and 200 baskets of grain. Farmer Bob would grudgingly load up the wagon with the goods, and the minion would dispatch it back to town via a wagon-driver. But when the royal accountant checked them in, there were only 2 cows and 150 baskets of grain. The farmer insisted that he had turned over the correct amounts; the minion insisted that he had not pilfered them, and the wagon-driver insisted that he had not pilfered them, either. It was one fellow’s word against the other, and although they would punish one or the other of the parties, they couldn’t stop the problem.

Until some unknown genius invented the first document in history: the bill of lading. This handy-dandy device was initially rather like a set of game pieces: one cube for each cow, and one marble for every ten baskets of grain. The minion on-site could make these out of clay and keep a stock on hand for each shipment. Of course, there was still a security problem: if the minion simply handed the carrier 3 cubes for three cows, what was to prevent the wagon-driver from “losing” one of the cubes as easily as he “lost” the cow? The solution was to place the accounting pieces inside a clay jug, seal the clay jug, and make a distinguishing mark on the seal to indicate that this was, in fact, the official, bona fide jug. If the wagon-driver wanted to mess with the jug, he’d have to replace it with a like jug, and reproduce the official seal mark that the minion had placed on it -- a task out of reach of a poor dumb wagon-driver. So the goods got to town unpilfered.

This scheme also had the benefit that Farmer Bob could watch the proceedings and verify that everything was on the up-and-up. Even the minion couldn’t beat the system.

The problem was, once the pot was broken, the paperwork was as good as lost. So long as the guy receiving the goods could directly compare the incoming load with accounts receivable, it worked fine, but as cities grew larger, the staff responsible for these tasks grew larger, the accounting department got moved to the other side of the palace, and things got screwed up. The solution to this problem was to place little symbols on the outside of the pot while it was still wet, the symbols representing the contents of the pot. The cow symbol looked just like an upside-down “A” -- in fact, that’s where the “A” came from. A half-oval was a basket. So the result might look like this:

Which would mean “4 cows and 70 bushels of grain”.

This way, you could see the contents of the bill of lading without breaking it open. The official legal document was preserved but still readable many times. Even five thousand years ago, the accountants wanted to keep neat records.

Then one day some bright young fool asked “Why do we need the stuff inside the pot if we never use it?” He was probably given a severe dressing-down for his impertinence and lack of respect for the legal traditions that made society function smoothly, then shipped off to some remote area, so that his boss could take credit for the idea. Instead of a bulky pot with little trinkets rattling around inside, all they needed was a clay tablet on which to make the same marks. Of course, they still needed to certify these documents, but that required only the use of the same special marking system that they had always used. This new “micro bill of lading” was much more convenient to use and quickly replaced the old system.

It’s obvious that they didn’t need to restrict their writing to cows and bushels. Very quickly a whole symbolic language developed, using various shapes, lines, and squiggles to represent all manner of important things. Indeed, their little language quickly grew too big to be manageable. So they standardized the system and set up schools to teach young scribes how to do it properly. In particular, they decided to use wedge-shaped reeds or sticks that would make triangular impressions in the clay; these triangles could be connected in groups with lines to represent a wide range of words. Thus was born the cuneiform system of writing.

This style of writing, in which each symbol represents one word, is called
morphemic. It’s a workable system, but clumsy. Consider: the average modern adult has a working vocabulary of about 5,000 words. Could you imagine memorizing 5,000 symbols to go along with 5,000 words? If you spent years studying it, perhaps you could, but it would not be much fun. The Mesopotamians never really cracked the problem; they had to send kids to school for years and years before they could become working scribes. Thus, writing never really sank into the consciousness of Mesopotamian civilization. It was an odd specialty practiced by a few hundred elite workers.

Although writing never did anything to improve the thought processes of the Mesopotamians, it was to have a powerful impact later in history...

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