Writing is the most important invention because it makes all the other innovations possible. While researching a 99papers review, I started to think about the craft itself and how it developed.
With all living things, every generation is a blank slate. When an elephant or a wolf dies, everything he experienced, all that he learned, will be gone. The same cycle is repeated in humans, with only word of mouth and tradition left to pass on knowledge. Writing was probably the most significant human discovery because it allowed us to teach future generations. Word for word, in-detail instructions can be passed on, not just vague or abstract traditions and legends.
Writing ensures that a generation’s voice is never lost, and to this day, it is the closest thing we have gotten to immortality.
What is writing?
The answer to this question may seem obvious: using letters to represent concepts or sounds while forming words and sentences with those letters. Yet, it gets more fundamental than that. Expressing anything through a written symbol can be considered writing. There are languages even today whose characters are abstract drawings of the concepts they represent.
Possibly, one of the most primitive instances of communication was when Cro-Magnon Man tried to tell stories through crude symbols painted on cave walls.
This discovery puts the development timeline way back to 35,000 BC. Although these pictographs were a far cry from modern language’s complexities, the seeds of symbology and thought were developing even in that early stage.
The first written language
The discovery of agriculture and the development of the first cities created a slew of challenges. For example, simple human memory was enough to keep track of resources in a more clan-ish, hunter-gatherer society. After all, you’re only keeping track of a few dozen people.
In cities, thousands of tons of grain and tens of thousands of people had to be registered and tracked. It comes as no surprise that writing was developed by humans to manage these vast quantities of information.
Trade was another innovation, as a single region had very slim chances of having all the resources that a city might require. These abstract symbols represented records of debts, count of sacrificial animals, and payment deeds.
The first recorded instance of a written language was in the Middle East in the South part of Mesopotamia. The oldest tablets found date back to approx—3500-3000 BC.
The writing style was named cuneiform, after the Latin word for a wedge. Its characters were wedge-shaped symbols carved into clay using tools made out of reed.
There seemed to have been a transition between pictographs (symbols of images), phonograms (symbols of sounds), and lastly, cuneiform, outlining a clear progression and evolution.
In this language, the oldest known work of literature was preserved: the Epic of Gilgamesh. The deeds and legend of the first great Hero were immortalized in cuneiform. The epic was proof that writing could be more than just a tool.
At this point, writing had transcended its simple, practical, and record-keeping use. It could inspire heroism and emotion, sadness, and joy. Human culture blossomed with the implementation of writing.
For these reasons and many others, cuneiform’s mark on history cast the greatest of shadows.
Other important early languages
Probably the most well-known ancient writing system is the one that belonged to ancient Egypt. Hieroglyphics have drawn a lot of attention and fascination, as they were tied to one of the most well-known yet mysterious ancient cultures. The level of advancement in Egypt was staggering, in a time when parts of Europe were relatively uncivilized.
Hieroglyphics used pictures to convey meaning, and there were approximately 1000 overall characters. They were either carved on wood or painted on papyrus.
The Proto-Sinaitic script (child-system of hieroglyphics) later developed into the Phoenician alphabet. Even further down the line, this gave birth to the Greek alphabet and Aramaic. In essence, the hieroglyph script is the ancestor of many modern systems of writing.
It seems like writing is an inevitable product of human civilization, given that across the Ocean, without any contact with the Mid East or Europe, the Maya also developed their language. The Maya system of writing is hard to date, yet it is estimated to have been invented somewhere between 500 BC – 250 AD.
In another case of writing being discovered independently from Sumeria or Europe, China also achieved written language. It is derived from the use of oracle bones during religious ceremonies of divination. The earliest accounts date back to c—1200 BC. In a similar situation to the Maya alphabet, there is no evidence of culture transfer between China or other parts of the world.
It seems that writing is an outgrowth of humanity, just like a beehive is an outgrowth of bees. This fact is proven by the independent development of writing systems all across the world. Cultures without any contact came to the same conclusions, and developed the same solution.
The complexity and nuance of human communication allows us to store and apply knowledge on a titanic level. Everything from simple math to the Moon landing came from that library of knowledge. Also, lives are improved continuously by the entertainment and moral lessons that writing allows.
It is amazing to think that a few scribbles changed the destiny of a species.