History of the earliest writing systems

History of the earliest writing systems

Posted by on May 27, 2016 in Learning, Reading, Writing

History of the earliest writing systems

Starting with the first inventions of writing systems, in the fertile valleys of Mesopotamia, all the way to modern times and modern writing systems of the world of information technologies, writing has been one of the most important, if not the defining feature of civilization.

History of writing starts in the ancient state of Sumer situated between Tigris and Euphrates rivers, what nowadays roughly corresponds to the modern countries of Iraq, Syria and Kuwait. This is the place where the oldest written accounts of language, specifically ancient Sumerian, were found. These texts were compiled somewhere in the 26th century BC, similar to the proto-hieroglyphics of Egypt. Later civilizations of Mesopotamia developed their writing systems several centuries later – the Akkadians, the Elamite and the Hurrian civilizations.

homepageHowever, writing systems were not developed only here and then „exported “throughout the known world. They were developed independently, although this opinion is debated, in a few locations around the globe. General opinion within the scholarly community is that writing systems originated, besides Mesopotamia, where the oldest accounts are found, in ancient China, somewhere around 1200 BC, and in Mesoamerica, around 600 BC. The debate centers on the fact whether the writing systems were developed completely independently or they are the consequence of „cultural diffusion“. This means that the concept of written language was carried around the world by traders who have come or have visited a civilization that had mastered the skill of literacy.

For example, there are some evidence that the idea of writing came to Mesopotamia from Egypt, based on the noted similarities in concepts between the hieroglyphics and the Mesopotamian writing systems. Some sources date the Egyptian hieroglyphics to as early as 3400 BC.


On the other hand, Chinese characters, which were developed independently, according to most scholars, because the Chinese civilization did not have contact with the civilizations of the Near East and because of the great differences between the writing systems, have been around since 1200 BC when they were, allegedly, invented by Cangjie.


The first Mesoamerican writing systems (Olmec, Zapotec, Isthmian scripts) were developed much later, in the 6th century BC. Today, the most famous writing system of the early American civilizations and the one considered the most developed,  is the Mayan script, with the earliest inscriptions dating from 200-300 BC.

Debates continue to endure concerning some other scripts which have not been deciphered yet and is not known whether these are truly systems of writing or simply proto-writing or sign systems. These include the Indus Valley script, the Rongorongo script of the Easter Island and some others.

Early of these writing systems, which had its origins in proto-writings like Jiahu symbols found on tortoise shells in Jiahu in North China and dated around 6600 BC, Vinča signs of the Vinča culture in Central and Southeastern Europe and dated around 5500 BC, and the aforementioned Indus script dated at around 3200 BC, were later developed into a true, modern writing systems, often called phonetic systems which most of the languages today use, with some exceptions

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