The Deep Roots of Writing.

Michael Erard, a longtime LH favorite (2016, 2003), has an Aeon piece that’s structured as a counter to the simplistic idea put forward by James Scott and others that “writing was invented so that early states could track people, land and economic production, and elites could sustain their power,” but it presents a nice summary of the present state of understanding of how writing developed:

I like to think of writing as a layered invention. First there’s the graphic invention: the notion of making a durable mark on a surface. Humans have been doing this for at least 100,000 years – the bureaucracy didn’t give humans that power. Then the symbolic invention: let’s make this mark different from all other marks and assign it a meaning that we can all agree on. Humans have been doing this for a long time, too. Then there’s the linguistic one: let’s realise that a sound, a syllable and a word are all things in the world that can be assigned a graphic symbol. This invention depends on the previous ones, and itself is made of innovations, realisations, solutions and hacks. Then comes the functional invention: let’s use this set of symbols to write a list of captives’ names, or a contract about feeding workers, or a letter to a distant garrison commander. […]

When you consider these layers of invention, you discover that early writing in Mesopotamia, for instance, had no overtly political function, as the archaeologist David Wengrow at University College London argues in What Makes Civilization? (2010). Instead, for the first 300-400 years of early cuneiform texts in the region (from about 3300-2900 BCE), Wengrow sees a bookkeeping function for managing temple-factories of the day. ‘There is hardly any use of writing for what I would view as state-like functions (eg, dynastic monuments, taxation, tribute, narratives of political events) until the Early Dynastic period,’ he told me.

This is an even stronger strike against the administrative hypothesis than it looks, because the counting that was the precursor to writing in Mesopotamia didn’t need the state to develop. In the 1960s, the archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat began studying clay tokens – cylinders, pyramids, discs, balls – thousands of which had been found all over Middle Eastern archaeological sites, though no one had explained what they were. These tokens showed up in Neolithic archaeological sites from 8000 BCE, well before the earliest states emerge in Mesopotamia. Schmandt-Besserat, whom I studied with at the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1990s, argued that the tokens went back 10,000 years. She realised that they were markers for objects: one cone per unit of grain, one diamond per unit of honey, and so forth. At first, tokens that denoted goods and objects were stored in groups; one storage method was sealing them into hollow clay balls. To overcome the obvious drawback that the contents of a sealed envelope can’t be checked, early accountants pressed the tokens into the soft, wet surface of the envelope. By the fourth millennium, scribes realised that the impressed signs made the envelopes redundant – just press the tokens into the clay, or better yet, create written signs that mimicked tokens. Then one more step of abstraction completed the journey: create written signs that capture speech-sounds and word-meanings.

The implications are clear, at least for Mesopotamia. Early states functioned without writing for nearly 3,000 years before the invention of cuneiform because they had the token system for counting. And tokens didn’t need the conditions of the state to develop – they preceded the state by 2,000 years. What we have is counting that precedes complex economic organisation as well as phonetic writing that precedes political functions. Both trajectories undermine the writing/state argument.

There’s good stuff on Pahawh Hmong, “invented by a Hmong farmer, Shong Lue Yang, in the late 1950s when he lived in the mountains of Vietnam,” and “a Lakota history drawn on a blanket by the Lakota warrior Swift Dog,” among others. Thanks, jack!


  1. The Crooked Timber blog had a post the other day about the cave paintings of Peche Merle. The post noted the hand tracings (in which pigment was applied around a hand) and observed that it appears that one hand is a man’s and another is a woman’s, placed close to paintings of horses. If the hands signify a particular individual – “me, I painted this” or “I killed this horse” – then they’re signatures of a sort.

  2. Yeah, it’s hard to break away from the idea we all have ground into us that writing is consistent representation of language done according to an official template (and preferably printed), but unless we do that we can never deal adequately with the subject of early writing (and attempts at it and precursors of it).

  3. marie-lucie says

    the cave paintings of Peche Merle.

    The name is Pech Merle. Pech is from the local Occitan dialect and means the same as its French cognate le puits, in this context meaning a deep hole.

  4. How is monitoring (and presumably regulating) labour and goods not an administrative function?

  5. I’m a bit skeptical of the idea the origin of ancient writing systems must be “shamanic”. Erard refers to “a team of anthropologists” who mention the idea of writing “devised by religious specialists, with tightly restricted, revelatory functions”. (This is Rodríguez Martínez et al. 2006 [not 2016] in the paper describing the Cascajal Block; they in turn reference Basso & Anderson 1973, about which more below.) But they are apparently somewhat skeptical about this, since they go on to say, “Against this view is the clear linkage of the script to the widely diffused signs of Olmec iconography. The signs and sequences of the Cascajal Block savor of widespread codification, not shamanic idiosyncracy.”

    And the examples of “shamanic scripts” that are mentioned or alluded to by Erard are mostly or all 19th or 20th Century, and plausibly developed by people already exposed to the idea of writing, even if some of them may not have been literate themselves. E.g., in introducing the Western Apache “shamanic script” of Silas John, Basso & Anderson (1973) noted that “an ability to read and write English, acquired by Silas John as a young man, undoubtedly accounts for his exposure to the idea of writing…. Like the Cherokee syllabary invented by Sequoyah around 1820, the writing system of Silas John represents a clasic case of stimulus diffusion that
    resulted in the creation of a totally unique cultural form.”

    So religiously inspired people in modern times can come up with unique, idiosyncratic scripts for shamanic/religious ritual purposes when they already know about other writing systems — but this doesn’t mean that’s how ancient writing systems arose when there weren’t other writing systems already in existence.

  6. I’m a bit skeptical of the idea the origin of ancient writing systems must be “shamanic”

    I’m not sure where you’re getting that idea. Erard mentions the word only once: “Such text [the Cascajal block, “a slab of serpentine scratched with 62 symbols that was discovered in Mexico in the late 1990s that dates to 900 BCE”] appears similar to shamanic writing ‘devised by religious specialists, with tightly restricted, revelatory functions’, as a team of anthropologists wrote in Science in 2016.” How do you get from that passing remark to the idea that “the origin of ancient writing systems must be shamanic”?

  7. There are four or five paragraphs devoted to the topic. E.g., starting off with “Kelly studies religiously flavoured political movements (and politically flavoured religious movements) in Southeast Asia and West Africa whose charismatic leaders have invented writing systems, often after having been inspired by otherworldly visions.” (The Kelly reference that’s linked to is a paper titled “Introducing the Eskaya Writing System: A Complex Messianic Script from the Southern Philippines”.)

    Then there’s a paragraph devoted to Shong Lue Yang’s religiously inspired writing system, and so forth, and when he talks about “bound writing” — which he’s ends up presenting as the pre-state origin of writing in general — it’s clearly in a religious context (“to decipher bound text, you must know what it’s about, and perhaps be an expert in the chant, ritual or curse (or whatever) that it captures”).

    And I’d argue he’s hinting at the same idea earlier, in his discussion of the development of cuneiform, when he says, “As far as the reductive argument that accountants invented writing in Mesopotamia, it’s true that writing came from counting, but temple priests get the credit more than accountants do. ‘Priests invented writing’ is a reduction I can live with – it posits writing as a tool for contacting the supernatural realm, recording the movement of spirits, inspecting the inscrutable wishes of divinities.”

    Which is a bit hard to accept, given that he’s previously suggested that “the elite didn’t invent agriculture or urban living but fashioned the oft-told narrative giving them credit for these achievements” — so why should we assume “temple priests get the credit” isn’t more of the same? Not to mention the fact that the evidence for the early development of cuneiform writing is, as he admits, pretty much all in the “accounting” realm. (Apparently the “inscrutable wishes of divinities” included lots of variations on “Tell me what’s in the jar.”)

  8. I think you’re pushing his analysis much too hard. I’m pretty sure he’d be the first to tell you he doesn’t know exactly how writing began; he’s just throwing out hypotheses. His primary goal, it seems to me, is to counter the idea that writing was invented so that “early states could track people, land and economic production, and elites could sustain their power,” and to propose other possibilities. I’m quite sure he wasn’t saying “It was shamans, so everybody just sit down and shut up!”

  9. David Marjanović says

    So, in Mesopotamia, writing was developed by bean-counters to literally count literal beans. What about Egypt?

    After all, cuneiform writing is wholly extinct nowadays, and has been for about 2000 years.

  10. marie-lucie says

    Peter E: “to decipher bound text, you must know what it’s about, and perhaps be an expert in the chant, ritual or curse (or whatever) that it captures

    This description of “bound text” sounds remarkably like that of the use of Easter Island’s rongorongo, at least by the few survivors who were supposed to be able to “read” the script. They seemed to have some idea of what the carvings were about, but could not match the script to actual words.

    shamanic writing

    Known shamanic cultures – typically in Siberia and North America – use painted symbols on their drums. These symbols are obviously meaningful, but pictorial not linguistic. Apparently there are no examples of a non-literate people inventing writing in order to preserve shamanic songs, formulas or other religious linguistic material, unless they were already familiar with the concept of writing. One reason is that shamanic experiences are intensely individual (even though they may follow a common pattern), and if a shaman composes a song or other utterance when in trance, those utterances are not to be copied by others, except if the song, etc is bestowed by a shaman to an apprentice or other person in training.. So using writing in order to contact the supernatural would seem to be a very late addition to a shamanic or even priestly repertoire, adopted at a time when writing was commonly used for other purposes.

    Ancient IE traditions as in India or Celtic lands produced a considerable sacred oral literature, which was to be memorized not written, for centuries if not millennia, even though those cultures came to be familiar with writing relatively early.

  11. J.W. Brewer says

    Pointing out that gunpowder was not initially invented for its military/political applications (the analogy proposed here for writing) hardly makes those subsequent applications a trivial part of its history. Does the Scott et al. thesis really require first-invention, or just adaptation? If one shares the view that the subsequent rise of state power was unfortunate, I’m not sure if literacy gets out of being one of the villains of the story by winning a fight about ultimate origins and ignoring the dynamics of subsequent use and spread.

  12. Pointing out that gunpowder was not initially invented for its military/political applications (the analogy proposed here for writing) hardly makes those subsequent applications a trivial part of its history.

    Nobody’s saying that. If one is only concerned with the present state of things, of course the origin of writing is irrelevant. But if one is concerned with history and cares about the origin of writing, then one might care whether it was initially invented for its military/political applications or not even if the subsequent rise of state power made use of it.

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