History of writing

The history of writing traces the development of expressing language by letters or other marks[1] and also the studies and descriptions of these developments.

In the history of how writing systems have evolved in different human civilizations, more complete writing systems were preceded by proto-writing, systems of ideographic or early mnemonic symbols (symbols or letters that make remembering them easier). True writing, in which the 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. It is distinguished from proto-writing, which typically avoids encoding grammatical words and affixes, making it more difficult or even impossible to reconstruct the exact meaning intended by the writer unless a great deal of context is already known in advance. One of the earliest forms of written expression is cuneiform.[2]

Inventions of writing

Sumer, an ancient civilization of southern Mesopotamia, is believed to be the place where written language was first invented around 3100 BC
Limestone Kish tablet from Sumer with pictographic writing; may be the earliest known writing, 3500 BC. Ashmolean Museum

The invention of writing was long thought to have one single origin, a theory named "monogenesis".[3] Scholars believed that all writing originated in ancient Sumer (in Mesopotamia) and spread throughout the world from there via a process of cultural diffusion.[3] According to this theory, the concept of representing language by using writing, though not necessarily the specifics of how such a system worked, was passed on by traders or merchants traveling between geographical regions.[4][5]

However, the discovery of the scripts of ancient Mesoamerica and Peru, far away from Middle Eastern sources, proved that writing could be invented independently. Scholars now recognize that writing may have independently developed in at least five ancient civilizations: Mesopotamia (between 3400 and 3100 BC), Egypt (around 3250 BC),[6][7][3] China (2000 BC),[8] lowland Mesoamerica (by 650 BC),[9][3] and Peru (perhaps as early as 2700 BCE but more likely 200 CE).[3]

Regarding Egypt, several scholars[6][10][11] have argued that "the earliest solid evidence of Egyptian writing differs in structure and style from the Mesopotamian and must therefore have developed independently. The possibility of 'stimulus diffusion' from Mesopotamia remains, but the influence cannot have gone beyond the transmission of an idea."[6][12]

Regarding China, ancient Chinese characters are an independent invention because there is no evidence of contact between ancient China and the literate civilizations of the Near East,[13] and because of the distinct differences between the Mesopotamian and Chinese approaches to logography and phonetic representation.[14]

Debate surrounds the Indus script of the Bronze Age Indus Valley civilization, the Rongorongo script of Easter Island, and the Vinča symbols dated around 5,500 BCE. All are undeciphered, and so it is unknown if they represent authentic writing, proto-writing, or something else.

The Sumerian archaic (pre-cuneiform) writing and Egyptian hieroglyphs are generally considered the earliest true writing systems, both emerging out of their ancestral proto-literate symbol systems from 3400–3100 BC, with earliest coherent texts from about 2600 BC.