Story or History of writing'/Part:07

Whether consciously or not, most people today understand how important writing is. We distinguish people as literate or illiterate, and when trying to better others' lives, one of the first things we do is teach them to read and write. Our ancient ancestors also recognized the significance of writing and many had myths recalling its invention. In Egypt, for example, the god Thoth was said to have created hieroglyphics, along with language, magic and medicine. The Mesopotamians traced the invention of writing back to Nisaba, the goddess of granaries, who they said created it to keep records of the goods coming through her temples.

Perhaps most interesting of all, at least to the modern world, is the tale preserved in Hebrew lore that Moses received the gift of writing from God along with the Ten Commandments. The Bible, after all, says explicitly that the Decalogue was "written with the finger of God" (Exodus, Chapter 31 :18:When the LORD had finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant, the stone tablets inscribed by God’s own finger, Deuteronomy 5.22:These words the Lord spoke with a loud voice to your whole assembly at the mountain, out of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, and he added no more. He wrote them on two stone tablets, and gave them to me). Israelite scholars in antiquity subsequently reasoned that God had inscribed these commandments because Moses could not write and, thus, the Hebrews must have been illiterate up until then. In this tradition, then, the Ten Commandments serve as a lesson in both morality and literacy. If a rather odd way of interpreting the Bible, this bit of folklore shows how important writing was to the ancient Israelites who made a gift from God.

The first western scholar known to have proposed a theory in which writing has a human origin was the French scholar Diderot in 1755. Based on an earlier suggestion by William Warburton, the bishop of Gloucester, Diderot suggested that early phonetic symbols developed out of pictographs as discussed earlier, pictures representing ideas. A highly successful thesis, this proposition remained the basis for most explanations of the origin of writing in the West, until Schmandt-Besserat introduced her theory of tokens, after She noted several of the designs used on and for tokens resembled later cuneiform signs.

When tokens first appeared around 8000 BCE, the vast majority of people in the world subsisted as hunter-gatherers, constantly on the move, with little or no need for counting things since nomads don't usually own much and what little they have is by necessity portable. Thus, it's surprising to find counters among the remains of civilizations dating to seventh-millennium BCE. What do they have to count? To the contrary, a settled community where goods can be stored is where one expects to find an accounting system develop. Recent archaeological investigations have been pushing the horizon of urbanized life back further and further in time. Settlements like Çatal Hüyük (pronounced CHAT-ul HOO-yuk) in central Turkey, which is a prehistoric community dating well back into the sixth millennium BCE, give evidence that city sites existed long before the rise of Sumerian civilization (ca. 3000 BCE). This suggests, in fact, that
urbanization began at the very brink of agriculture which in some places developed as early as the eighth millennium BCE. Similar counting systems, for one, can be found even today all over the planet. Of particular interest here, modern shepherds in Iraq still use pebbles in counting sheep. But pebbles are undifferentiated, making it unclear what they represent. That is, if a counting system employs only one type of counter, it's not possible to discriminate among various commodities. The solution to that problem is obvious and conforms precisely to the archaeological evidence seen in tokens, to differentiate the counters. Seen one way, tokens are exactly that, "differentiated pebbles."This makes it easy to understand how tokens would have been deployed in counting, as Schmandt-Besserat argues. Say, for instance, you're a tribal chieftain and want to hold a feast. You send a runner, a young boy perhaps, off with a handful of tokens that function as a sort of "shopping list." You could also keep for yourself an identical set as a reminder of what you'd put on your "list." And you could even change your mind later and send off another boy with more tokens, in other words, a revised list. With all that, tokens clearly serve as a writing system, at least in as much as they are a form of communication and record-keeping in which it's possible to edit one's "words," all the hallmarks of writing!

[Kandiah Thillaivinayagalingam]

Part:08 will follow


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