The Origins of Writing

For my first post, I thought I would pay homage to the very invention that makes this blog possible: writing!

The origins of writing are ancient and go back as far as humanity’s oldest civilizations, originating in Sumer. Sumer was a region in Mesopotamia, what is now southern Iraq, and is considered to the be cradle of civilization. A number of various city-states dominated the region over it’s history (Uruk, Ur, and Akkad are a few of the more famous ones) but they are still collectively thought of as part of a greater Sumerian civilization. Around 4500 BC Sumer became the first region where humanity began to gather in what could be called “cities”, as opposed to the remote bands of tribes and villages that had been the norm for the previous hundreds of thousands of years.

Map of Ancient Sumer Map of Ancient Sumer


Before that, no one really had any use for writing. Most people were too busy hunting and trying to survive to bother with poetry or literature. That all changed once people started living in cities. Once farming was invented, people discovered that it could produce a great deal more food than hunting did and freed up some of the population to do other things with all their spare time. Some people became priests, some people became potters and some people became administrators and scribes that tracked and tallied all the extra food they suddenly had.

Since no one had considered writing things down before, these administrators had to figure out a way to keep track of everything. The earliest forms of writing were pictograms or very simple pictures of whatever they were meant to represent. These would be scratched on to clay tablets and then baked and were usually records of grain supplies or receipts. Over hundreds of years, these simple pictures became more abstract and evolved into what is known as cuneiform. The picture below shows an example of that evolution.


Cuneiform was written by taking the stalk of a reed and stamping it into clay. This was the first time that symbols were written by using different combinations of the same basic shape. This was also the first time that a writing system had characters that stood for sounds rather than physical objects. Different signs were combined to make brand new meanings for different words altogether. This allowed them to write about abstract ideas and things with no physical form such as “life” or “love”.

Writing eventually spread out of Sumer and into the surrounding civilizations who each added their own distinct flair. Writing was developed independently in at least three different geographic areas (Mesopotamia, China and Mesoamerica) but Mesopotamia was the first. The very first work of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, was written down around 2000 BC (although it was based on stories that had been told for a long, long time before that) and was about the legendary king of Uruk who you probably already guessed was named Gilgamesh.

So concludes my first post on “Something Cool I Learned Today”. As this is a brand new venture, I am still figuring out how each post will be formatted. But remember, this blog is for you! If you think that this post was too long, too short, too detailed, too dumbed down or any other manner of wrong, feel free to let me know in the comments and I will do my best to rectify the error of my ways! Thanks for reading and I certainly hope you learned something cool today!


zigguratUr Replica of the long lost Ziggurat or Ur


1. J.M. Roberts, The New Penguin History of the World, Fifth Edition (London: Penguin, 2007), 49-65
2. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005), 215-238
3.”Ancient Scripts: Origins of Writing Systems”, Ancient Scripts, accessed March 29th, 2013,