When and Where Was the First Writing?
Updated: Oct 29, 2022
Pens and pencils abound in the quotidian here and there of our lives. They populate our desk drawers, briefcases, and bags. They remain extant despite harrowing journeys through washing machines and temporary burial by the millions each year in shallow landfills (please see my blog post Can Those "Free" Ballpoint Pens Be Recycled?). How did we come to this point in the history of writing where its tools are so widespread and taken for granted? What did we do to communicate across time and space even before the earliest Egyptian reed and ink pens?
In modern day southern Iraq on the east bank of the Euphrates River, the ruins of the city of Uruk rise out of ancient Mesopotamia and the dust of time. However, over five thousand years ago in 3200 BC, Uruk was once the largest city in the world! Uruk prevailed over much of Mesopotamia through the strength of its economic and administrative systems including a writing system called cuneiform. This writing system employed a reed stylus to impress characters in soft clay tablets. Initially created in order to write in the ancient language of Sumerian, cuneiform later was adapted to many other languages throughout the ancient Near East including Babylonian and Assyrian also in Mesopotamia and Hittite in Anatolia, modern Turkey.
Given the complexity of Uruk's economy and administration, we think the invention of cuneiform was not so much for the purpose of communicating person-to-person across space, like how you might write a letter with paper and ink pen today. It was rather to communicate across time. The first texts we have are administrative. They record things like how much of a certain foodstuff was collected in a given year or to whom payments were distributed. This was not so much information that needed to be communicated to other people at the time the texts were written but rather was important for people in the future to look back on later. Government officials could keep track of who needed to be reimbursed and who was in debt over time, keeping people accountable for their money and labor. These early texts are thus "administrative tools" - they helped the government run more smoothly and keep track of more and more information, especially numerical information, that was difficult to leave to human memory. Many of these texts, then, can give us information about ancient economy.
With time the cuneiform corpus grew, transforming various forms of speech such as proverbs and poetry into clay permanence. Cuneiform even created for the first-time new genres that did not before exist due to the creative opportunities that came not with speech but only with writing, such as wordplay based on cuneiform sign shapes. Writing became no longer a solely utilitarian "administrative tool," although certainly that function remained in the form of economic records, receipts, loans, documents of land and real estate sale, letters, law codices (think Hammurabi!), and much more. It was now also a means for the production and perpetuation of art, writing as art--the "scribal art." From treatises on medicine and astronomy to literature still famous today such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, the legacy of writing's ancient Mesopotamian origins still rests ever-present in the pen you hold today, a product of world heritage.