The Beginnings of Writing

Written human communication from cuneiform to cursive

Mesopotamian clay tablet 3,000 BC
Mesopotamian clay tablet 3,000 BC courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
A flash of writing history . . .

Writing numbers for record keeping began long before the writing of language.

Humans first counted on their fingers. They used sign language to communicate numbers.

For 40,000 years, they kept tallies by carving notches in wood, bone and stone.

The Sumerians

There was a fertile crescent of land between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers in an area of the Middle East we recall as ancient Mesopotamia and today identify as the modern country Iraq.

By 5,000 BC, settlers had drained the marshes for farmland and were living in homes of sun-dried bricks of mud and straw. They were the Sumerians.

Among the many inventions of the Sumerian civilization was the first written language.


Record keeping was important to the ancient Sumerians and they believed in educating their sons to read and write.

Around 3,000 BC, they were using a stick called a stylus to press pictographs representing words and numbers into tablets of clay. The pictographs were drawings of things that represented words. They worked, but were cumbersome.

Cuneiform writing

By 2,000 BC, the Sumerians had designed wedge-shaped symbols to represent objects and ideas. Today, we call their written language of ancient wedge-shaped symbols cuneiform.

Some words from ancient Mesopotamia are still in use in modern languages. For instance, crocus, which is a flower, and saffron, which is a spice.

Was it only in Mesopotamia?

It's thought the writing of language started in ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia around 3,000 BC. That's 5,000 years ago. The Sumerians wrote on clay tablets.

The development of writing in Egypt around the same time probably followed contact with the Sumerians just 800 miles away in Mesopotamia. The ancient Egyptians wrote on papyrus made from a plant grown along the Nile River.

Several hundred years later, around 2,200 BC, the use of writing may have traveled to the distant Indus Valley in ancient India.

A millennium later, writing might have developed independently in China around 1,300 BC because the nearest literate civilization was 2,600 miles away in the Indus Valley.

The writing of language developed independently in the agricultural villages of Mesoamerica – modern-day Mexico and Central America – around 600 BC.

As writing developed in ancient times, anything that could be written upon was used – clay, stone, skin, bark, metal.

A brief glossary of writing terms
writing - the act of using implements to depict coherent words on paper or other medium.
cuneiform - wedge-shaped characters of an ancient writing system impressed into clay tablets.
clay tablet - small tablets made of a baked fine-grained earth used as a writing medium.
papyrus - the pithy stem of a water plant made into sheets for writing.
handwriting - writing using a handheld instrument.
cursive - writing with the individual characters joined.
block - writing with individual characters separated.
alphabet - a set of letters and symbols representing sounds of a language.
glyph - a hieroglyphic character or symbol; a pictograph.
hieroglyph - a picture of an object representing a word, syllable or sound in ancient writing systems.
pictograph - a picture symbolizing a word or phrase.
manuscript - a work written by hand.
calligraphy - decorative handwritten lettering.

More info about writing
Writing Wikipedia Origins of Writing Metropolitan Museum
History of Writing Wikipedia History of Writing Scriptorium
Writing Timeline Jeremy Norman History of Writing PBS History Detectives video
Handwriting Wikipedia Cursive Handwriting Wikipedia Block Handwriting Wikipedia
Language Wikipedia Alphabet Wikipedia Glyph Wikipedia
Writing Systems Wikipedia Manuscript Wikipedia Scriptorium Wikipedia
Calligraphy Wikipedia Doodle Wikipedia Morse Code Wikipedia
History of Writing Instruments Writing Implements 6000 years Ring-Pen
History of Paper Wikipedia History of Paper Portland State University
Printing Wikipedia Typesetting Wikipedia
History of Communication Wikipedia History of Communication

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© 2011 Dr. Anthony Curtis, Mass Communication Dept., University of North Carolina at Pembroke    e-mail    home page