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Chapter Eight



Their function as a stamp of ownership on this item or that was mundane, but the best of them carry images of astonishing vivacity and refinement.         --An art critic's view of ancient cylinder seals


The oldest surviving written reference to King Solomon's Temple is an inscription on a shard of clay from the seventh century B.C. What might the inscription be? Lines from a prayer? A paean to divinity? No. The inscription is a receipt. Someone donated three shekels of silver to the temple, and the gift was duly recorded.

Writing has been an instrument for some of the highest expressions of the human spirit: poetry, philosophy, science. But to understand it—why it came into being, how it changed the human experience--we have to first appreciate its crass practicality. It evolved mainly as an instrument of the mundane: the economic, the administrative, the political.

Confusion over this point is understandable. Some scholars have equated the origin of "civilization" with the origin of writing. Laypeople sometimes take this equation to mean that with writing humanity put aside its barbarous past and started behaving in gentlemanly fashion, sipping tea and remembering to say "please." And indeed, this may be only a mild caricature of what some nineteenth century scholars actually meant by the equation: writing equals Greece equals Plato; illiteracy equals barbarism equals Attila the Hun.

But, in truth, if you add literacy to Attila the Hun, you don't get Plato. You get Genghis Khan. During the thirteenth century, he administered what even today is the largest continuous land empire in the history of the world. And he could do so only because he had the requisite means of control: a script that, when carried by his pony express, amounted to the fastest large-scale information-processing technology of his era. One consequence was to give pillaging a scope beyond Attila's wildest dreams. Information technology, like energy technology or any other technology, can be a tool for good or bad. By itself, it is no guarantor of moral progress or civility.

If there is even rough validity in equating writing with civilization—and there is—it lies along a different plane. "Civilization," in a more technical sense of the word, is sometimes used to denote societies that have reached the state level of organization. And while writing doesn't guarantee statehood, it is a helpful ingredient. It opens up whole new realms of non-zero-sumness, and greatly lubricates the transition from chiefdom to state. Around the world, the evolution of state-level societies was intertwined with new ways to record and transmit information.

The advance of cultures to the level of the state, to civilization in the technical sense of the word, did in some sense pave the way for civilization in the layperson's sense of the word, civilization as an arena for civilized behavior. With the state would come, for example, the rule of law, which mandated that citizens treat each other with some minimal respect and systematized the punishment for failing to do so.

Indeed, one might argue that, as a general but not rigid rule, writing has made life better in various ways—even, eventually, eroding the power of tyrants. And one might make similar arguments about other thresholds in data processing, such as the advent of the printing press and of the Internet. But first we must understand the evolution of writing, for the printing press and the Internet are in some ways extensions of this ancient revolution in data storage and transmission.


Like most truly epic cultural innovations—farming, for example writing appears to have arisen independently in several places. Scholars long insisted otherwise. Back in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, western historians, especially, took a "monogenetic" view of civilization's spread, insisting that Chinese and New World cultures were largely derivative. In the case of the New World, especially, this claim took some ingenuity, but Eurocentric scholars were up to the task. A nineteenth-century French anthropologist, pondering remnants of Mayan writing, theorized that residents of the mythic continent of Atlantis, having abandoned their homeland before it sank, sailed to the New World, bringing literacy.

Today, there is no good evidence even for more sober scenarios of east-west contact that could explain American writing—which existed before the time of Christ—as an import from the Old World. And within the Old World, the origin of writing in China after 2000 B.C. was probably independent of its origin in the Near East around 3000 B.C. The academic consensus is that writing arose at least three times independently. And, just as there are "proto-agricultural" and "horticultural" societies—illustrating agriculture in the process of evolving—there are examples of writing in mid-evolution. Easter Island featured a primitive and apparently indigenous script called rongorongo.

Some scholars talk as if writing arose in the Near East, the New World, and China for very different purposes. The simplest version of the stereotypes runs something like this: The Sumerian script of the Near East was heavily economic in function; the Maya were more inclined to history, politics, and religion (including an elaborate astronomy-cum-astrology); the Chinese used their script to tell fortunes. But such generalizations turn out to rest largely on the assumption that in each culture the earliest known example of writing represents the earliest instance of it.

Consider the claim, quite common until recently, that Chinese writing arose as a means of divination. It's true that the earliest Chinese examples of true writing are etchings on "oracle bones" made during the second millennium B.C. Questions were engraved in the shoulder blades of sheep, cattle, or pigs. The bones, after being heated, yielded supposedly prophetic cracks, whose interpretation might be recorded as well. ("It should be Fu Hao whom the king orders to attack Jen." Or this gem of reassurance: "In the next ten days there will be no disaster.") But, as scholars have begun to realize, shoulder blades probably weren't the medium of choice for more casual jottings. The Chinese presumably wrote on less durable things—bamboo or silk or wood—that have since decomposed.

Mesoamerica has the same problem. Surviving examples of early Mayan hieroglyphics come in durable media: monumental hunks of stone. But of course, things that societies write on government edifices are not generally representative of things that societies write, as a stop at the Lincoln Memorial, followed by a glance at the New York Post, will attest.


Only in the Tigris-Euphrates river valley, in the land now known as Iraq, is there much hard evidence about the earliest evolution of a script. There the medium for early writing was not silk or bamboo but soft clay that, once dried, preserves symbols long enough for archaeologists to find them. Clay tablets were so abundant that whole trash heaps of them have been found. So we can speculate with some confidence about the early evolution of what may have been the world's first true system of writing: Sumerian cuneiform, the sinew that bound what may have been the world's first civilization.

The most widely accepted theory about the birth of Sumerian writing was developed by Pierre Amiet and documented by Denise Schmandt-Besserat. It begins with little clay tokens that show up in the eighth millennium B.C., as agriculture is coming to the Fertile Crescent. The tokens stand for particular crops. A cone and a sphere, for example, represented grain in two standard quantities, the ban and the bariga, roughly a modern-day liter and bushel, respectively. The tokens seem to have been used for accounting, perhaps recording how much a particular family had given to the granary, or how much it owed.

As cities were forming, in the second half of the fourth millennium, there came more complex tokens, elaborately shaped and marked. Often they symbolized products of an urban economy: luxury goods such as perfume and metal, processed foods such as bread and beer.

The shift from these three-dimensional symbols to two dimensional, written symbols illustrates just how plodding cultural evolution can seem when observed up close, on a time scale of decades rather than millennia. Sometimes records were kept by storing tokens in large clay envelopes about the size of a tennis ball. Five clay cones might be sealed. inside an envelope to record a debt or payment of five bans of grain. As a convenience, the tokens were pressed against the soft surface of the envelope before being enclosed. That way a person could "read" the contents of an envelope without having to break it open. Two circles and a wedge would mean the envelope contained two spheres and a cone. Apparently it was some time before a key insight dawned: the two-dimensional imprint on the outside of the envelope had rendered the three-dimensional contents superfluous. The envelopes could now become tablets.


An excerpt from Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, By Robert Wright, published by Pantheon Books. Copyright 2000 by Robert Wright.