Who invented writing and counting?

Reader's Digest Editors

The invention of writing and counting by the Sumerians turned society away from oral tradition and gave birth to our ability to permanently record the past.

A system takes shape

sumerian writing
An early Sumerian writing tablet recording the allocation of beer, 3100–3000 BC. Image via Wiki

The earliest known civilisation was created by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq. Between 3500 and 3000 BC, the Sumerians took possession of the land near the Persian Gulf, where they drained the swamps and established agriculture on a permanent basis.

They developed trade with surrounding areas and built up an industrial economy. Many Sumerian villages were transformed into walled cities. This change reflected complex social organisation—another indication of civilisation.

At the same time as the shift from villages to cities took place, the Sumerians developed a system of writing in which important items were represented graphically with simple drawings. This rudimentary system evolved into the script now known as cuneiform.

Cuneiform, later used by other peoples of Mesopotamia, comprised an unwieldy number of symbols representing an infinite number of ideas, objects, and sounds. These characters were drawn in clay with a wedge-shaped instrument known as a stylus.

The birth of writing introduced a new mode of communication, convenient for business transactions and other forms of personal contact. Moreover, it signalled the beginning of a completely new enterprise: the writing of history.

Before the emergence of the written symbol or word, history was the domain of human memories, as fallible as man himself. Until the Sumerians developed cuneiform, history was an oral tradition, in which one generation regaled the next with stories of the past; that generation then assumed responsibility for informing their successors. The stories gradually changed during this prehistoric form of “whisper down the lane,” and after many generations had been so frequently altered that they hardly resembled the original versions.

The advent of writing, however, changed this process by creating a permanent record of the past for the benefit of future generations.


Writing's roots in counting

origins of writing
An account of barley rations issued monthly to adults and children written in cuneiform script on a clay tablet, written in year 4 of King Urukagina, c. 2350 BC. Image via Wiki

Actually, the Sumerian writing system seems to have developed from a more ancient system of counting that may date back as far as 8000 BC.

Many small clay tokens have been discovered from this period that are thought to have represented common agricultural goods, mainly for the purposes of bookkeeping.

During the 4th millennium BC, this system was updated to a significant degree. These simple tokens, now shaped like the objects they represented, were often stored in clay envelopes, which were inscribed on the outside with likenesses of the tokens they held.

These markings showed users what was contained within the envelope without their having to open it. As the number of goods used in Sumerian society increased, so did the number of tokens and their representative envelope markings.

By 3100 BC, as many as 1,200 different stamps were in use. As the system for marking the envelope contents grew more elaborate, the Sumerians realised that actually putting the tokens in the envelope was unnecessary. As a result, envelopes and tokens gradually fell out of use, and the clay engravings themselves became the primary method for accounting.


Cuneiform evolves

Cuneiform writing in Ur, southern Iraq. Image via Wiki

After 3200 BC, archaeological evidence points to the development of a more universal script, helpful not only in representing specific items and events but also for recording more general ideas. It was this script, rooted in the use of symbols for accounting, that eventually developed into cuneiform writing.

Not long after Sumerian civilisation emerged, similar cultures appeared in the Nile Valley and the Indus Valley. It is apparent that these new civilisations engaged in some form of commerce with their Sumerian predecessor.

From these civilisations emerged the writing system known as hieroglyphics.

Like cuneiform, the system was made up of numerous symbols representing words, syllables, and sounds, though they were a great deal more pictographic.

This difference is primarily a result of the methods utilised in writing each script: The brute pressing of a stylus into clay, as practised by cuneiform scribes, was far less nuanced than the drawing or painting of symbols employed by the writers of hieroglyphics.

How did the breakthroughs leading up to Sumerian civilization occur? According to scholars, a managerial class—priests or overlords— directed the labour of the majority of the people, who may have been enslaved by conquest.

The priests, who had to explain why the gods had chosen some men to be their slaves, also collected huge quantities of grain and other food from the populace as offerings to the deity. With this wealth, the priests were able to employ artists, architects, carpenters, clothmakers, and others with special skills who worked full-time to assure the divine pleasure.

In this way, far-reaching changes in architecture and other fields took effect, paving the way for Sumerian civilisation to blossom.