The Writing on the Wall?

Uncovering the Trail of Ancient Letters


We once were told that writing, in the form of Sumerian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics, began some five thousand years ago, having evolved from relatively crude picture writing (this part is probably true). This marked, we were taught, the beginning of recorded history, so the time prior to this is, by definition, prehistoric. We were told that all modern alphabets derived from the Phoenician. Later, some researchers theorized that a kind of alphabet developed in the city state of Ugarit, in what is now Syria, which preceded and evolved into the Phoenician alphabet. Now it appears that neither of these theories is true. Furthermore, earlier forms of writing appear to have preceded those of Egypt and Sumer. Keep in mind that many forms of writing have been invented independently of one another.

Modern researchers divide writing systems into several types. Logographic scripts use symbols to represent entire words or large sections of words, called “morphemes.” For example, “unbreakable” has three morphemes: un, break, and able. Cuneiform was logographic, as was Mayan, and modern Chinese. Syllabic systems have characters representing syllables; examples are Mycenaean Linear B, Japanese, and the Cherokee writing system invented by Sequoyah.  Alphabetic systems have symbols (letters) representing phonemes (vowels and consonants), although Middle Eastern systems, like Hebrew, called “abjads,” have no vowels. In some cases, diacritical marks are used to show where a vowel sound will be, or variations in the shape of the consonants. Such systems, used in India, Southeast Asia, and Ethiopia are called “abugidas.” Featural scripts use similar symbols to represent similar sounds, or the same symbol oriented in different directions. Ideographic systems, like Egyptian hieroglyphs, use symbols to represent entire words or ideas rather than sounds, and some such symbols are actual pictograms, or simple pictures of what is represented. Sumerian cuneiform is also sometimes described as ideographic.

It does seem logical to suppose that pictures were developed before true writing; certainly Cro-Magnon cave paintings are older than any true writing system yet discovered. It appears that these paintings may have been magical in nature, intended perhaps to ensure success on the hunt and the birth of many healthy children. But perhaps true writing, as well as numbers, was developed, at least in part, for magical purposes; even today we are familiar with magic words and magic numbers. The very idea is anathema to modern materialists, but to those of us who lean toward philosophical idealism, the belief that thoughts, words, and numbers may be able to affect the world around us and influence events does not seem so strange.

About 12,000 BP (Before the Present) the Azilian culture in northern Spain and southern France, perhaps the ancestors of today’s Basques, painted strange symbols on small stones, including dots, dashes, ovals, bands, zigzags, and one symbol that somewhat resembles an Egyptian ankh. Stranger still, some of the symbols are identical to the letters E,I,L, and M; yet, as we shall see, the Latin alphabet is a relatively recent development. Some appear in combinations, suggesting that they may well have been numbers or words.

The people in Jiahu, China, 8,600 BP, had farming, domestic pigs and cattle, metals, and what appears to be a crude ideographic writing system. Conventional archaeologists used to assure us that none of these developments came before 6000 BP, but even conventional archaeologists have been open-minded enough to move dates ever further back as new finds have been made.

By 7300 BP the Vinca culture had developed in Greece and eastern Europe, and the Vinca also had some sort of (probably crude) writing system, which has yet to be deciphered. The Dispilio Tablet, found in Greece, contains examples of this script, with symbols like crosses, chevrons, swastikas, comb and brush patterns, simple animal pictures, a bow and arrow symbol, a double cross symbol (like the Cross of Lorraine), and a small circle within a larger one (in later cultures this was a sun symbol), and a cross within a circle (somewhat similar to a Maltese Cross, but not exactly). Also, the Vinca had symbols exactly resembling M, V, I, y, T, Z, b, X, C, D, O, and 4. Again, the similarities to the much later Latin alphabet are mystifying. The Vinca and the Azilians both used the “M” symbol.

Meanwhile, numbers were also evolving; prehistoric people cut tally marks into bones, probably for calendrical purposes, including keeping track of the lunar cycles. Again, the purpose may have been, at least in part, magical. By 5400 BP the Sumerians had place value, with 60 as a base. By 5100 BP Egyptians had developed a ten-based system, and they and the Babylonians understood zero but not how to use it in a place-based system. This came about later, in India; and in the Americas the Olmecs, perhaps as early as 2400 BP, used zero as part of a place-based system, as did their successors, the Mayans.

In Sumer (modern Iraq), abstract symbols were incised onto clay tokens as early as 10,000 BP; these evolved into cuneiform by about 5000 BP, used primarily to record commercial transactions and the dates of important events. Shortly thereafter the proto-Elamite script developed in what is now Iran (Persia), apparently derived from cuneiform. This system had some 1,000 symbols and appears to have been at least partly logographic. Also, apparently derived from cuneiform by 3400 BP was a kind of alphabet used in Ugarit (mentioned earlier); it died out when Ugarit was destroyed.

The undeciphered Indus Valley script, in what is now India and Pakistan, began as early as perhaps 5500 BP and was fully developed by 4600 BP. It was apparently written from right to left and included some 400-600 signs, apparently partly logographic and partly syllabic. Incidentally, some writers have suggested that the Rongorongo script of Easter Island, inscribed on wooden tablets, evolved from this. Certainly, seafarers might have crossed the Indian and much of the Pacific Ocean, perhaps in stages, but there is no evidence of people on Easter Island before about 800 BP, and it is likely that the islanders, inspired by European writing, developed the script after European contact. I have pored over examples of Rongorongo and Indus Valley writing and can see no resemblance.

Then, there are Egyptian hieroglyphs, a Greek word for sacred writing. This system, probably evolved from pre-dynastic picture writing, is about as old as Sumerian cuneiform. It includes phonetic glyphs (some denoting only a single consonant, like modern letters), logographs, and “determinatives,” horizontal or vertical lines which indicate if a symbol is to be read phonetically, using the rebus principle. To illustrate the rebus principle, imagine a simple drawing of a bee and one of a leaf: belief. In hieroglyphics, a single symbol might be used phonetically, as an ideogram (representing an object or idea) or as a logogram. The Egyptians used hieroglyphics mainly for inscriptions on obelisks, tombs, and temples, perhaps in part for magical reasons. But they also developed a sort of proto-alphabet, about as old as their hieroglyphic system, dating back to about 4900 BP; it was used for more practical purposes, like legal, medical, administrative, and religious texts, and was often written in ink on papyrus or cloth. From this hieratic script, the demotic script developed in the Nile delta by around 2650 BP, and this (along with the Greek alphabet) evolved into the Coptic alphabet.

But this was not the only alphabet derived mainly from hieroglyphs. By 3800 to 4,000 BP, another proto alphabet developed, probably also in the delta, and this evolved into the Proto-Sinaitic alphabet around 3400 BP, used by Canaanite (including Israelites) workers in turquoise mines in the Sinai Peninsula. From this evolved the Phoenician alphabet, which inspired a later Canaanite alphabet, and the Aramaic alphabet. The Aramaic alphabet was the basis for the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets, and possibly the Brahmi script, which in turn evolved into the Indian and other Asian alphabets. The Phoenician alphabet also inspired the Greek alphabet, believed to be the first one with vowels, and it was the basis for the Latin alphabet, used in most Western nations as well as the Cyrillic alphabet.

Meanwhile, the Chinese seem to get by quite well with their logosyllabic system, where each character (and there are many hundreds) represents a syllable or even a complete word. The Japanese have two systems: Kanji, a logographic script based on Chinese, and Kana, which is syllabic. So alphabets are not necessarily the most “advanced” form of writing, and we can expect that in the future, new systems will evolve.

But what of the ultimate origins of writing? Are the Jiahu and Vinca scripts the oldest? Certainly, they do not appear to be highly evolved, but, since we cannot decipher them, we cannot be absolutely sure of this. Writing on paper, papyrus, cloth, bark, or even wood would likely not survive past eight or ten thousand years, nor paint on stone. Carved inscriptions on stone might last much longer, but to date no inscriptions recognized as such have been dated earlier. But there may be examples even in museums that have not been recognized as writing, or properly dated, or even studied. There may even be forms of writing not arranged in straight lines; certainly there are complex, abstract stone carvings that often have not been dated, or that have simply been assigned relatively recent dates by conventional-minded archaeologists. And there is the legendary Emerald Tablet of Thoth—did it ever really exist? Was it hidden under the Sphinx, and, if so, is it still there or has it been spirited away by powerful and influential people and kept secret from us peasants? We can speculate as much as we like, but, in the end, we do not really know.

And could there have been fairly advanced civilizations with no writing system at all, or only a simple system used as a mnemonic aid? Even many historical cultures have set great store on memorization; one of the reasons for rhyme and meter in verse and song is to make it easier to memorize myths and legends. If civilizations of a sort can develop with little or no agriculture (the Gobekli Tepe builders are believed to have been hunter-gatherers), why not a civilization with no writing? We must not be too quick to make assumptions. If someone from the late nineteenth century encountered a computer and an assortment of discs they would have no idea what it was. For all we know, some prehistoric culture may have developed some information storage and retrieval technology analogous to our modern computers, but perhaps based on some completely different concept; we would have no idea what we were looking at. As old beliefs give way to a realization of the extreme antiquity of Humanity and all our works, and as the technology for archaeology on land and under the sea advances, we may yet discover an advanced writing system of unimaginable age.

By William B. Stoecker