0. The First Writing

Apply yourself to writing zealously; do not stay your hand… Pleasant and wealth-abounding is your palette and your roll of papyrus.
—School text from Egypt, 19th Dynasty1

Uruk, Sumer, c. 3400 BC. The civil servant was overwhelmed. With all of the sheep and goats going in and out of Uruk’s city gates, he was having trouble keeping track of it all. Had he collected taxes from that farmer already? How many sheep did that villager bring? It was all so much to remember. And what if the villager contested it?


This was a brave new world for Mesopotamians at the onset of the Bronze Age (roughly 3300 to 1200 BC). Not so long ago around 4000 BC, men discovered that castrated bulls became larger, powerful, docile oxen and put their cattle to work dragging heavy loads, aiding in labor and transportation. Around the same time, his Sumerian ancestors (present day southeastern Iraq) may also have invented the potter’s wheel (this is debated), whose improved pottery stored food and drink through the seasons and across distances. By 3500, his countrymen (or possibly their contemporaries in Central Europe, but with Sumerians as early adopters) had coupled this wheel gizmo, made of strong wood from abundant forests, with draught animals to invent the wheeled vehicle. Their wagons enabled travel and trade, and by extension, specialization by craftspeople with access to wider markets.

Massive climate change beginning around 4000 BC brought aridification and prompted massive migration into the river valleys of the Nile and the Tigris/Euphrates.2 There, people congregated in large communities, fostering urbanization and the establishment of walled cities.3 Sedentary living catalyzed the growth of year-round agriculture. Agriculture was aided in time by the discovery that copper mixed with tin formed an alloy—bronze—stronger than either metal, which could be used to make harder ploughs, which could be pulled by oxen, dramatically improving yields. This new metal could also be forged into tools to build these cities and weapons to defend and conquer them. Centralized governments took shape to oversee those communities. The creation of these industries and authorities, some posit, facilitated the rise of class-based social hierarchies.

Our civil servant, tasked with accounting for all the materials in the storehouse, took some wet clay and a reed, both plentiful in those parts, and drew a sheep and a series of notches to represent the number of sheep. Once the clay dried, it would become very durable, and if fired would be effectively permanent.4 “There,” he said to himself, “this should make things easier.” Excitedly, he shared his epiphany with his coworkers, who agreed on a depiction for the ideal sheep and the system of notches to note their number. They shared their system with their counterparts in the next city over and with their new recruits who’d be taking over for them when they retired. They become known for this skill of recording and gave rise to a new scribal profession. This was the beginning of writing.

Or at least something like this. While we don’t know the exact details of how or why writing began—How could we? There weren’t written records yet!5—the story of our anonymous civil servant could very well be fairly close to the truth. The earliest written documents in Mesopotamia are business records from the growing economies of Uruk, Susa, Jemdet Nasr, and other cities in modern Iraq, Iran, and Syria.

Next: Origin Theories

Notes   [ + ]

1. Dynasty XIX was c. 1292 to 1187 BC, Egyptian time being marked by dynasty and kingdom. As translated in W. V. Davies, Egyptian Hieroglyphics.
2. See Parker, Adrian G., et al. (2006). “A record of Holocene climate change from lake geochemical analyses in southeastern Arabia”. Quaternary Research (Elsevier) 66 (3): 465–476. This climactic change is sometimes referred to as the 5.9 kiloyear event. People may have been living in the region for 100,000 years through many climactic changes.
3. For more on the effect of population density on human creativity, see Chip Walter, “First Artists” in National Geographic, January 2015. It is likely the primary reason innovation endures and flourishes.
4. Many of the preserved tablets that have come down to us today are the accidental result of libraries and storehouses being burned during the tumultuous history of Mesopotamian conquest.
5. The dividing line between history and prehistory is in fact the invention of writing.

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