When people say “since the dawn of history”, what they mean is since human affairs have been recorded in writing. The evolution of complex human societies would be unthinkable without the ability to communicate complex ideas.
The earliest recorded instance of written communication, appeared in Mesopotamia around 3400 BC. These were administrative records probably written by Sumerian clerks. At that time writing was part pictographic and part syllabic.
These early writings soon developed into fully syllabic forms of communication. Similarly, they were soon used to communicate lofty ideas and not just to count cows.
From Pictures to Letters
The first written forms of communication simply used pictures to represent concepts. Cave paintings are amongst the best-known examples of this type of written communication.
As complex civilization developed in the fertile crescent, there was a need to keep track of the logistics that accompany significant political and economic structures. Therefore, some of these pictures took on meanings that were commonly understood in order to record how much food or other necessities were available.
By facilitating taxation, this kind of writing allowed both Egypt and Mesopotamia to develop relatively sophisticated monarchies and social structure.
Both Sumerian and Egyptian slowly evolved from representational pictures to fully formed syllabic writings. Within one thousand years of the first letters appearing in these systems, they had become fully readable languages.
The Rise of Literature
At first, language was used for bookkeeping purposes, but the move to syllabic representation opened up new avenues of written expression. Well over a millennia after the first written lists, the first known and recognizable works of literature were written.
The Epic of Gilgamesh was written, most likely as a compilation of common stories, by an unknown author close to four thousand years ago. The dramatic story was the first known literary narrative and inspired countless tales including biblical ones such as Noah’s Ark.
Literature is not only a window into the soul of the individual (or individuals) who wrote it but also an absolutely essential element in creating a wide and influential culture.
Six Hundred years after the appearance of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Greek epics known as the Iliad and Odyssey were compiled. These remain a centerpiece in Greek identity to this day.
Well before writing was developed, pictures were used to represent the supernatural element in human society. Pictures of animals are widely considered to have been associated with worship of the creatures represented.
There are of course severe limits to the complexity religious ideas transferable through representational pictures. Once syllabic writing had evolved into a coherent representation of language, new spiritual possibilities emerged.
The most spectacular early product of this development was the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Written over at least 1,000 years, the book depicts the magic spells necessary for a deceased individual to get into the afterlife.
The accumulation of spiritual tradition over such a lengthy period of time, allowed a solid and long-lasting religious structure to emerge for the first time. This model would later be followed by Jews and Christians as they compiled what would later become the Old and New Testament.
How Did Language Spread?
For a long time, the working theory was that writing emerged in the “cradle of civilization” in Mesopotamia and spread from that seed throughout the world. This is almost certainly correct in regard to the spread of the written word throughout what today is called the Middle East.
However, today it is clear that writing emerged independently in more than one location. The current assumption is that this technology appeared, in chronological order: in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Mesoamerica.
This is more than just a fascinating tidbit of historical information. It is firm evidence that writing fulfills an essential role in human evolution and is not just an accidental discovery.
The Importance of Language
It is no coincidence that human society changed unrecognizably in the centuries following the introduction of fully syllabic language. It facilitated the coordination of ideas over time in a manner that was inconceivable before.
It is hard to imagine a world without writing. Mass religion, strong political units, literature, and large-scale logistics would have been impossible without the emergence of coherent writing systems.
However, as the emergence of writing in different unconnected places teaches us, a world without writing was never in the cards. It is too integral to our evolution and identity for that.