I have already started a Future of Language thread in the news and discussion forum, so when I came upon this article a History of Language thread seemed like a good idea.
How Humans Invented Writing
(Discover) About 5,000 years ago, 30 goats changed hands between Sumerians. To record the transaction, a receipt was carved onto a clay tag, about the size of a Post-it. Simple geometric signs represented the livestock and purveyor. The indents of circles and semicircles denoted the quantity exchanged.
Imagine how surprised these people would be to learn their receipt is now held in a museum.
That’s because the tag is one of the earliest texts from the oldest known writing system, Mesopotamian cuneiform, developed around 3,200 BC in the area of present-day Iraq. Like most surviving records from the time, it’s economic in nature, and about as riveting as a checkbook ledger. But the interesting part is not what these early texts said. It’s how they came to be.
These early texts beg the question: How was writing invented?
That question has at least four answers because writing was independently invented at least four times in human history: in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and Mesoamerica. The scripts of these civilizations are considered pristine, or developed from scratch by societies with no exposure to other literate cultures. All other writing systems are thought to be modeled after these four, or at least after the idea of them.
Two sides of a tag from ~3,100 BC Mesopotamia describing the transfer of 25 female and 5 male goats.
(Credit: Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History; photo by K. Wagensonner)