Human Development and the History of Writing

Oliver Steinglass

“For millions of years of our prehistory, there was very little change in our culture. We had the same stone tools for hundreds of thousands of years. Then about 50,000 years ago, all of sudden culture changed very dramatically, and you started to get art, much finer tools and the start of a period of increasingly frequent revolutions – in agriculture, printing, industry.” (Ehrlich)

What brought about this change in culture? The drastic change in rate of development can be linked to many different factors. First agriculture, and then domestication of animals and fire were all followed by the introduction of new technologies into the world. One of the main technologies was the invention of writing. Writing allowed humans to retain information and to pass it on to other people, even over many generations.

The beginnings of written language heavily corresponded with the transition of early humans from hunter-gatherers to settled civilizations utilizing agriculture. This transition is known as the Neolithic Revolution (Ponting). Early humans spent all their time hunting/gathering, it was easy for them to simply follow their food source. As populations grew life became more difficult for hunter-gatherer societies, more people meant less space to follow around food sources. This change forced humans to settle in more permanent locations, it forced them to invent agriculture and domesticate animals. As agriculture was developed, people had more food to eat, this resulted in both an even higher rate of population growth and also a food surplus. The higher population growth rate meant that there was even less space for hunting and gathering, leaving humans no choice but to settle, and removing the option of going back to hunting and gathering. The food surplus created by agriculture began the chain reaction that has led to society as we know it today. In the past humans had spent all their time hunting and gathering food. However, once there was a food surplus, there was much more free time. Constructions were created, along with social structures and religion (Ehrlich).

As technology improved the food surplus grew even more. In the southernmost region of Mesopotamia, called Sumer, the first major civilization was growing. It is not known exactly when the first people settled in the Sumer area but it was certainly prior to 4500 BC. Most Mesopotamians, especially the Sumerians, believed that their civilization was a result of the gods (Mark).

Map of Sumer

The Sumerians built massive temples in homage to their gods; these temples were also used to store large amounts of food. During particularly prosperous periods people would donate food to the temples, the food would then be distributed when the farmers went through a lean period. These huge stores of food required an inventory. Originally the inventory was kept on slabs of clay using pictograms, simply shapes that resembled the types of goods being kept in the temples. These shapes slowly developed from not only representing objects, but also ideas and concepts. The pictographs were rotated and eventually turned into wedge shapes made in the clay to form the script Cuneiform (Donald Ryan). Cuneiform was not only used for inventory, one of the earliest found pieces of writing in Uruk (a major city in Sumer) was a list of the top 120 leaders of the city (Met museum). This is evidence that the Sumerians used their writing as a means of providing distinction between members of society. The symbols later evolved to represent syllables used to produce a deeper vocabulary.

Sumer was not the only place where written language was being developed. By examining other early civilizations who also developed similar technologies a pattern emerges. An example of this is the Neolithic Revolution. Early humans all over the world were developing agriculture at similar times, they had no way to communicate and share this technology across the world so clearly many different humans were making similar advancements. This would suggest that human beings only really have one trajectory, which is to advance their society. When they settle in one way or another they immediately search for the next way to advance. In this case that is through written language. Humans all over the world needed a way to record ideas.

In Egypt a similar writing script was being born. Hieroglyphics were also originally a pictorial system, however some eventually evolved into representing sounds. An example of this is below:


The combination of pictures and sounds is called acrophony and it was the first step towards an alphabet. The Egyptian use of acrophony was an influence of the first alphabetic system of Proto-Canaanite/Proto-Sinaitic (also found in Egypt) in 1700 BC. This was the foundation for Phoenician, Greek and Roman (Ryan).

Through this short introduction to the beginnings of writing, it is clear that humans will always search for the next way to advance their societies. From the Neolithic Revolution, forcing humans to settle into communities, to the introduction of writing and beyond, humans have forged new ways of interacting with their environment and with each other.

Works Cited: (Joshua Mark)

Ponting, Clive. Ch. 3 and 4 in “A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations.” St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1991. ISBN 0-312-06989-1, McCabe GF75.P66 1992 pp. 18-67.