What is writing?

Horse engraving on a boneHumans seem to have long felt the need to express themselves. Cave paintings from thousands of years ago show the habitat and experiences of the earliest humans. But as humans began to live in larger and larger settlements and communities the need to record and manage information, rather than just express it, grew.

Origins of writing

The origins of writing are largely unclear. Writing systems were created independently all over the world. The earliest we know of were developed in the Middle East around 5,000 years ago. But other scripts were invented in India, Egypt, China and Central America. It has been suggested that some of these systems may have influenced others, but this has not been proved.

These forms of writing look completely different, follow different rules and are often read in completely different ways. But they all perform the same basic function. ThRecord of food suppliesey are all a visual means of recording language.

Knowledge of some early scripts invented in certain regions was picked up by peoples living in surrounding areas. They would then adopt and adapt them to their own needs and language. Chinese, for example, was adopted in Japan and Korea, though it had to be altered to apply to the languages spoken there.

Recording information

Methods of recording information have varied over time and place. Not all sophisticated societies have developed writing systems and not all methods of recording information require writing.

The Inca empire of South America was at its height in the sixteenth century AD and held power over a huge area that stretched from modern Equador and Peru, to areas of Bolivia and Chile. It was a complex civilisation, but did not develop a writing system.

Inscribed cast bronze tabletInstead information was stored using quipu. These were groups of strings of different colours that were knotted to register census statistics, economic records and taxation. It has also been suggested that quipu recorded mythology and history.

They were read by the quipu-masters who tied the knots. In some parts of Peru and Bolivia, similar recording devices are still used.

The power of writing

Today, the scripts we use bear little resemblance to each other if we look at them on a page. Arabic looks nothing like the Latin alphabet, for example, but as systems of recording information, neither of them requires the autGold dinar of caliph Abd al-Malikhor to be with us, or a very good memory, if we want to understand the message recorded in them. If we can read the script we can understand the message.

Writing is therefore among the most powerful tools we have. Some ancient peoples considered it so important and so powerful that they believed it was invented by gods, deities or mythical heroes. Some ancient Egyptians, for example, believed that writing was the creation of the god Thoth.

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