Where Did Writing Come From?


In a world in which immediate access to words and information is taken for granted, it is hard to imagine a time when writing began.

Archaeological discoveries in ancient Mesopotamia (now mostly modern Iraq) show the initial power and purpose of writing, from administrative and legal functions to poetry and literature.

Mesopotamia was a region comprising many cultures over time speaking different languages. The earliest known writing was invented there around 3400 B.C. in an area called Sumer near the Persian Gulf. The development of a Sumerian script was influenced by local materials: clay for tablets and reeds for styluses (writing tools). At about the same time, or a little later, the Egyptians were inventing their own form of hieroglyphic writing.

Even after Sumerian died out as a spoken language around 2000 B.C., it survived as a scholarly language and script. Other peoples within and near Mesopotamia, from Turkey, Syria, and Egypt to Iran, adopted the later version of this script developed by the Akkadians (the first recognizable Semitic people), who succeeded the Sumerians as rulers of Mesopotamia. In Babylonia itself, the script survived for two more millennia until its demise around 70 C.E.