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How old is writing?

If we believe the common narrative, writing emerged in Sumeria in the third millennium BC. Others consider the Jiahu symbols from China or the Vinča symbols from Serbia as examples as the first writing. However, new archeological data keeps changing these theories. A 7,000-year-old tablet found in Greece contradicts the traditional narrative. Unsurprisingly, it has triggered fierce debates among linguists. In part, this is because we first need to define writing.

So, what is writing? As Colleen Anne Coyle, PhD, explains on Quora, this question is harder to answer than you might expect.

The Dispilio Tablet

Dispilio tablet | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book
The Dispilio tablet. Source: Roptron

According to conventional archaeology, writing wasn’t invented until 3000 to 4000 BC in Sumeria. However, an artifact recovered over a decade ago contradicts this belief.

The Dispilio Tablet (also known as the Dispilio Scripture or the Dispilio Disk ) is a wooden tablet bearing inscribed markings (charagmata), unearthed during George Hourmouziadis’s 1993 excavations at Dispilio in Northern Greece and carbon 14-dated to about 7300 BP (5260 BC). The tablet contained a set of symbols that seem to be a form of proto-writing, 2,000 years older than proto-Sumerian pictographic script from Uruk (modern Iraq), and 4,000 years older than the Cretan-Mycenean linear types of writing.

The site appears to have been occupied over a long period, from the final stages of the Middle Neolithic (5600-5000 BC) to the Final Neolithic (3000 BC). A number of items were found attesting to the economic and agricultural activities of the settlement, proof of animal breeding and their diet preferences, including ceramics, wooden structural elements, seeds, bones, figurines, personal ornaments, bone flutes (one of them dating back to the 6th millennium BCE, the oldest ever found in Europe).

As well as the tablet, many other ceramic pieces were found that also have the same type of writing on them. Hourmouziadis suggests that this type of writing, which has not yet been deciphered, could be any form of communication including symbols representing the counting of possessions. The markings on the tablet did not resemble the human figures, the sun and moon or other figures ideograms usually depict. They actually showed signs of advanced apheresis, which indicates they are the result of cognitive processes.

Ancient Dispilio Disk And Traditional History Of Writing | Ancient Pages

What is writing?

Any discussion of early writing of course brings up the question: what IS writing? The difference between proto-writing and writing is that, while the former encodes information, the latter encodes language. Almost anyone in Western civilization will answer that writing is a way of presenting language using alphabetic, i.e. phonetic, symbols. This kind of writing is called phonographic, because it is based on sound, either individual letters or syllables.

However, if you ask people in China or Japan what writing is, the answer will be quite different, for these methods of writing present an entire word or concept in a single symbol or composite of symbols. This is called logographic or ideographic writing. It is significantly more abstract. Ancient writing systems are unique in the large number of signs used, because they are primarily logographic, whereas phonographic systems of writing in comparison have relatively few signs.

There are several examples of proto-writing from around the world, perhaps the most significant being the Vinca symbols from Serbia and the Jiahu symbols from China, which predate the Dispilio tablet by 1,000 years. Both of these are extraordinarily old (~6000-5000 BCE) and, crucially, there are multiple examples of each. A 2003 report in Antiquity interpreted the Jiahu symbols “not as writing itself, but as features of a lengthy period of sign-use which led eventually to a fully-fledged system of writing”.

The Dispilio tablet, inscribed with symbols similar to those of the Vinca Culture, fits into an understood framework in a way that is extremely interesting but requires some nuance.

Example of the Jiahu symbols (Jiahu symbols – Wikipedia).

Mesopotamian script

Mesopotamian Tablet with Uruk IV Proto-Cuneiform Writing, ca 3200 BC. (How Mesopotamian Accounting Led to the First Literary Language)

The Mesopotamian cuneiform script can be traced furthest back into prehistory to an eighth millennium BC counting system using clay tokens of multiple shapes.

The development from tokens to script reveals that writing emerged from counting and accounting. Writing was used exclusively for accounting until the third millennium BC, when the Sumerian concern for the afterlife paved the way to literature by using writing for funerary inscriptions.

The evolution from tokens to script also documents a steady progression in abstracting data, from one-to-one correspondence with three-dimensional tangible tokens to two-dimensional pictures, the invention of abstract numbers and phonetic syllabic signs, and finally, in the second millennium BC, the ultimate abstraction of sound and meaning with the representation of phonemes by the letters of the alphabet.

Alphabetic writing

Alphabetic writing is a relatively recent development, and even in European and Mediterranean societies of antiquity, writing began in a non-phonetic way, for example like Egyptian hieroglyphics. Early writing systems evolved with the intention of fixing ideas or practical information for later transmission to others.

What makes these particular ancient marks more than mere decoration? Typically objects are decorated with symbols that are arranged symmetrically. But these particular signs seem to be arranged primarily for the communication of ideas, with aesthetics being of secondary importance. Though some in the archeology community would like to dismiss these marks as mere “potter’s signatures”, their position inside vessels, under the brims, or only on one side of figures suggest a different, more idea-based intent. These marks, some of them in rows separated by lines, were incised into clay or stone.

Proto-cuneiform was not a written representation of the syntax of spoken language. Its original purpose was to maintain records of the vast amounts of production and trade of goods and labor during the first flowering of the urban Uruk period Mesopotamia. Word order didn’t matter: “two flocks of sheep” could be “sheep flocks two” and still contain enough information to be understood. That accounting requirement, and the idea of proto-cuneiform itself, almost certainly evolved from the ancient use of clay tokens.

Tokens and Envelope, c. 3300 BCE (http://sites.utexas.edu/dsb/tokens/tokens/)

The earliest characters of proto-cuneiform are impressions of clay token shapes: cones, spheres, tetrahedrons pushed into the soft clay. Scholars believe the impressions were meant to represent the same things as the clay tokens themselves: measures of grain, jars of oil, animal herds. In a sense, proto-cuneiform is simply a technological shortcut instead of carrying around clay tokens.

By the time of the appearance of full-fledged cuneiform, some 500 years after the introduction of proto-cuneiform, the written language had evolved to include the introduction of phonetic coding – symbols that represented sounds made by the speakers.

The Vinča culture

In 1875, archaeological excavations led by the Hungarian archeologist Zsófia Torma at Tordos, Hungary (today Turdaş, Romania) unearthed a cache of objects inscribed with previously unknown symbols. In 1908, a similar cache was found during excavations conducted by Miloje Vasic in Vinča, a suburb of Belgrade (Serbia). Later, more such fragments were found in Banjica, another part of Belgrade. Since then, over one hundred and fifty Vinča sites have been identified in Serbia alone, but many, including Vinča itself, have not been fully excavated. Thus, the culture of the whole area is called the Vinča culture.

Clay tablet, one of the Tărtăria tablets unearthed near Tărtăria, Romania, and dated to ca. 5300 BC (authenticity is disputed (Vinča symbols – Wikipedia)

It was later realized by scholars that the Vinca marks were used by multiple cultures in the area of the Danube river, with its tributaries and valleys being the heart of the Old European culture in southeastern Europe. These various cultures thrived 5000 to 7000 years ago and shared the use of many of these signs. These artifacts predate Sumerian, Phoenician, or Egyptian civilizations by many hundreds or even thousands of years. The signs are now more properly referred to as the Danube or Old European script.

The Danube script

Harald Haarmann, a German linguistic and cultural scientist, currently vice-president of the Institute of Archaeomythology and leading specialist in ancient scripts and ancient languages, firmly supports the view that the Danube script is the oldest writing in the world. The tablets that were found are dated to 5,500 BC, and the glyphs on the tablets, according to Haarmann, are a form of language yet to be deciphered. The symbols, which are also called Vinca symbols, have been found in multiple archaeological sites throughout the Danube Valley areas, inscribed on pottery, figurines, spindles, and other clay artifacts.

Is the Danube Valley Civilization script the oldest writing in the world?

The implications are huge. It could mean that the Danube Valley Civilization predates all other known civilizations today. Evidence also comes from thousands of artifacts that have been found, such as the odd-looking figure displayed above.

However, the majority of Mesopotamian scholars reject Haarmann’s proposal, suggesting that the symbols on the tablets are just decorative. This is despite the fact that there are approximately 700 different characters, around the same number of symbols used in Egyptian hieroglyphs. Other scholars even suggested that the Danube Civilization must have copied signs and symbols from the Mesopotamian civilizations, despite the fact that some of the Danube tablets have been found to be older than the Mesopotamian ones.

Vinca Symbols (Source: Wikipedia)

The nature and purpose of the Vinča-Tordos symbols are a mystery. It is dubious that they constitute a writing system. If they do, it is not known whether they represent an alphabet, syllabary, ideograms, or some other form of writing. The Vinca symbols carry non-verbal information about calendar and ritual events. 

In February 2004, Hourmouziadis claimed that the text with the markings could not be easily publicized because it would ultimately change the current historical background concerning the origins of writing and articulate speech depicted with letters instead of ideograms within the borders of the ancient Greek world and, by extension, the broader European one.

The same symbols are seen in the National Geographic global comparison of Palaeolithic markings (Mysterious Markings May Hold Clues to Origin of Writing).

Similarities between symbols at different Palaeolithic caves in Europe (Palaeolithic Writing).

Deciphering symbols

Although attempts have been made to decipher the symbols, there is no generally accepted translation or agreement as to what they mean. At first, it was thought that the symbols were simply used as property marks, with no more meaning than “this belongs to X and Y”. This theory is now mostly abandoned, as the same symbols have been repeatedly found on the whole territory of Vinča culture, on locations hundreds of kilometers and years away from each other. 

So, scientists fell back to the usual explanation: the symbols were used for religious purposes in a traditional agricultural society. The symbols carry non-verbal information about calendar and ritual events. If so, the fact that the same symbols were used for centuries with little change suggests that the ritual meaning and culture represented by the symbols likewise remained constant for a very long time, with no need for further development. The use of the symbols appears to have been abandoned (along with the objects on which they appear) at the start of the Bronze Age, suggesting that the new technology brought with it significant changes in social organization and beliefs. 

A sample of similar symbols from Upper Palaeolithic Europe (Palaeolithic Writing).

The origin of symbols

Based on the fact that there are currently approximately 7,000 known languages whereas, to the best of our knowledge, fewer than 100 major scripts have appeared in the course of human history, it is argued that alphabetic scripts have developed only where there is a need for them. In recognition of this fact, it is important to realize that there is at least one universal in all known writing systems: they all first derived the symbols they used from an ancient collective of images based on animal and natural forms as seen in the Palaeolithic.

The study of symbols carved and painted in caves all over the world including penniforms (feather shapes), claviforms (key shapes), and hand stencils could eventually persuade archaeologists to look back beyond the Vinca culture and Sumerians.

This universal system of symbols in cave art could be a remnant from modern humans’ migration into Europe from Africa. This early system of communication through abstract signs has been described as a precursor to the “global network of information exchange” in the modern world.

It is easy to forget that humans have thrived on the abilities and mental achievements of their predecessors, long before formal written records were recognizable. These symbols traveled: they aren’t only found in caves, but also etched into deer teeth strung together in an ancient necklace. This use of abstract symbols to communicate is a fundamental shift in our ancestor’s mental skills.

What a deer-tooth necklace says about our Ice Age ancestors – Izzy Wisher | Aeon Ideas

Deciphering the underlying meaning is extremely complicated when it comes to the European symbols. Prehistorian Jean Clottes argues “the signs in the caves are always (or nearly always) associated with animal figures and thus cannot be said to be the first steps toward symbolism.” Conversely, MIT linguist Cora Lesure and her co-authors in a paper published in Frontiers in Psychology last year, suggest that both the signs and the animals were meant to convey ideas in the same manner as a written language. Cognitive mechanisms necessary for the development of cave and rock art are likely to be analogous to those employed in the expression of the symbolic thinking required for language:

It is therefore likely that these iconic symbols, which can be seen repeated over tens of thousands of years have been used to convey common meanings throughout time, acting as a background reservoir of constituents for the step from basic pictograms to a complex alphabet comes hand in hand when the needs of civilisation demand as shown by the close association between the emergence of script and the emergence of a ‘civilised’ state.

Minoans and ancient Greeks

The repetition of certain signs from the Danube script in the Linear A tablet points to the Minoan civilization as being the inheritor of this writing system. The Linear A and much of the Linear B tablets remain undeciphered, but their similarity to some of the signs of the Danube script suggests that aspects of these Eastern European cultures migrated further out to the Aegean civilization of Crete.

The validity of the Vinca script and Dospilio tablet even impact the origins of the Ancient Greek language. Ancient Greeks learned to write around 800 BC from the Phoenicians.

However, a question then emerges: how is it possible for the Greek language to have 800,000 word entries, ranking first among all known languages in the world, while the second next has only 250,000 word entries? How is it possible for the Homeric Poems to have been produced at about 800 BC, which is just when the ancient Greeks learned to write? It would be impossible for the ancient Greeks to write these poetic works without having had a history of writing of at least 10,000 years back, according to a US linguistic research. While ancient eastern civilizations used ideograms to express themselves, the ancient Greeks were using syllables in a similar manner to today’s scripts.

Decoding the writing is going to be difficult if not impossible, unless a new Rosetta stoneis found. Unfortunately, The tablet was partially damaged due to the oxygen-rich environment outside of the mud and water in which it was immersed for a long period of time (7500 years), and it is now under conservation. The full academic publication of the tablet apparently awaits the completion of the work of conservation.

The full text, bibliography, and links are available on Quora.