Where and How Was Writing First Invented?

Fareeha Arshad

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Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash

Our love for writing is not a recent development. We have been writing for a really long time.

Complete writing systems have been developed over half a dozen times throughout history. Modern-day Iraq (Mesopotamia), Ancient Egypt, and the Shang Dynasty of China are some places where writing forms were known to be first developed.

1. Cuneiform: The earliest known written expression

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Engravings on a tablet in cuneiform | Available at British Museum, London 2005Flickr

Cuneiform is known to be the oldest writing, dating over 5,500 years ago that was first taking shape in Mesopotamia. Initially, the writing was displayed as pictorial representations. Eventually, these picture-like writing transformed into a more complex form with characters representing the sound of the Mesopotamian language, Sumerian, which became the primary language of learning until 200 B.C.

Over the next half a millennium, cuneiform took its final shape with simpler, universal signs and symbols. Initially, it was read from top to bottom. Later, it was read from left to right. Over fifteen languages over history and across the world used cuneiform inspired letters and symbols. Cuneiform lasted until 75 A.D. and was the forerunner for the other languages to come.

2. Hieroglyphics in Egypt

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Egyptian hieroglyphicsWikimedia Commons

The earliest rock arts discovered that display ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics dating back to 3250 B.C. Artefacts like ivory tablets have been found, each bearing a hieroglyphic message of the past.

The writing in ink on scrolls was called the priestly script or the ‘hieratic.’ While the ones carved on stones were called ‘hieroglyphics.’ The discoveries of such artefacts suggest that the two different forms of writing served different purposes: hieratic bore the message about administration.

At the same time, hieroglyphics told the stories about the ceremonies and occasions the Ancient Egyptians enjoyed. Over the years, these two writing systems developed to include more symbols, displayed more sounds and combinations.

3. Oracle bones in China

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Oracle bone from the late Shang dynasty (1200 B.C.)Wikimedia Commons

The earliest known writing samples discovered near Beijing in China date back to the Shang Dynasty from 1300 B.C. These writings were carved on the shoulder bones of oracles and turtles, called the ‘oracle’ bones. More than 100,000 such bones have been discovered there, each bearing a different set of messages in unique ancient characters. These bones record questions raised to the royal predecessors about Chinese traditions and lifestyles.

The characters drawn on the bones are very dissimilar compared to the present-day Chinese language’s pronunciation and meaning. Hence, most of the messages on these oracle bones remains yet to be deciphered.

What are some of the other ancient writing forms you know about? Do let us know in the comments section.

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I am a scientist by profession and a historian by passion. I write about current affairs, history, science, and lifestyle.

Texas State
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