History of writing systems

The history of writing systems, much like agriculture and husbandry, show us that which is indispensable to humans. Scholars now recognize that writing may have independently developed in at least four ancient civilizations: Mesopotamia (between 3400 and 3100 BCE), Egypt (around 3250 BCE), China (1200 BCE), and lowland areas of Mesoamerica (by 500 BCE).

The evolution of writing from tokens to pictography, syllabary and alphabet illustrates the development of information processing to deal with larger amounts of data in ever greater abstraction.


The cuneiform script, created in Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq, ca. 3200 BC. It is also the only writing system which we can trace to its earliest prehistoric origin. This antecedent of the cuneiform script was a system of counting and recording goods with clay tokens.

Cuneiform - history of writing system
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A complex system of characters representing the sounds of Sumerian gradually substituted early pictorial signs. Sumerian was the language of Sumer in Southern Mesopotamia and other languages.

The process of writing cuneiform stabilized over the next 600 years. Curves were eliminated, signs simplified and the direct connection between the look of pictograms and their original object of reference was lost.

‘Oracle’ bones

By 1300 BC we have evidence of a fully operational writing system in late Shang-dynasty China.

For centuries, farmers found fragments of bones and sold them for use in Chinese medicine as ‘dragon bones’. It was not until 1899 that politician and scholar Wang Yirong (1845–1900) recognized characters carved into the surface of some of these bones and realized their significance. As the earliest written records of Chinese civilization found to date, these inscriptions extended Chinese historical and linguistic knowledge by several centuries.

Oracle bones - History of writing systems
‘oracle’ bones

These ‘oracle’ bones (the shoulder blades of oxen and turtle plastrons) record questions that were posed to the royal ancestors about topics as diverse as crop rotation, warfare, childbirth and even toothache. To date, nearly 150,000 examples of such bones have been found, containing over 4,500 different symbols, many of which can be identified as the ancestors of Chinese characters still in use today.


Discoveries of large-scale incised ceremonial scenes at the rock art site of El-Khawy in Egypt date to around 3250 BC. They show features similar to early hieroglyphic forms. Some of these rock-carved signs are nearly half a meter in height.

From 3200 BC onwards Egyptian hieroglyphs appeared on small ivory tablets used as labels for grave goods in the tomb of the pre-dynastic King Scorpion at Abydos and on ceremonial surfaces used for grinding cosmetics, such as the Narmer Palette.

Hieroglyphs - History of writing systems

Writing in ink using reed brushes and pens is first found in Egypt. The Greek knew this ink writing as hieratic (‘priestly’ script), and today we call the carved and painted letters we see on monuments hieroglyphs (‘sacred carvings’).

Within four centuries of the finds in King Scorpion’s tomb, hieroglyphs and Hieratic (a cursive writing system used for Ancient Egyptian) developed a full range of characters.

This included:

  • 24 uni-consonantal symbols (an ‘alphabet’ containing various consonants only)
  • phonetic components representing combinations of sounds
  • determinative signs (signs with no phonetic value, used only to determine which of several alternative meanings for a word is meant in a particular context).

It is from this Egyptian writing that an alphabet would first evolve, sometime from 1850 BC onwards.


Sometime between 900 and 600 BC writing appears in the cultures of Mesoamerica. Just four Maya books survive from the pre-colonial period and fewer than 20 from the entire region. These codices are painted onto deer skin and tree bark, the writing surface coated (as were many of the buildings) with a polished lime paste or gesso.

Mexico’s National Institute of History and Anthropology said the calendar-style text was made between 1021 and 1154 A.D. and is the oldest known pre-Hispanic document.

This undated photo released by Mexico’s National Anthropology and History Institute (INAH). Authentic ancient Maya pictographic text. (INAH via the Associated Press)

The 10 surviving pages of the tree-bark folding “book” will now be known as the Mexico Maya Codex. It had been known as the Grolier Codex. It may have originally had 20 pages, but some were lost after centuries in a cave in southern Chiapas state.

The ‘book’ contains a series of observations and predictions related to the astral movement of Venus. Mayan texts are written in a series of syllabic glyphs, in which a stylized painted figure often stands for a syllable.

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Front and back of seal with two-horned bull and inscription, Indus Valley Civilization, c. 2000 B.C.E., steatite, 1 1/4 x 1 1/4 inches (Cleveland Museum of Art)

Indus River valley

Archeologists objects with symbols that may be writing in the Indus River valley of Pakistan and northwest India. The society that used these symbols was the culmination of a historical settlement in the Indus region that goes back to at least 7000 BC. A high urban culture flourished for 700 years, between 2600 and 1900 BC, at which point the cities declined.

Although we have about 5,000 known inscribed artifacts and the longest inscription consists of 26 symbols, most are just three or four signs long.

The 400 unique symbols that we have identified are too low in number for a viable logographic word-based writing system.

Rapa Nui

Archeologists discovered around two dozen wooden tablets inscribed with glyphs on Rapa Nui in the 19th century. Rongorongo, a term the Rapa Nui themselves applied to these objects. Missionaries at that time interpreted them to mean ‘lines incised for chanting out’.


The characters reflect human, animal and plant motifs. There are 120 elementary (un-joined) glyphs, which have been used to write texts as long as 2,320 characters and as short as just two.

Whether rongorongo is purely a mnemonic

The First Alphabetic Systems

While cuneiform had many graphs that represented syllables, many syllables were not represented. The methods used for representing syllables that did not have distinctive graphs were quite unsystematic. The first writing system consistently based on the sound structure of a language was Linear B, a Mycenaean Greek orthography developed about 1400 bce. In 1952 Michael Ventris, an English architect and cryptographer, deciphered it. The script is strictly syllabic; each consonant-vowel pair is given a distinctive graph. As an example, a set of syllables that an alphabetic system would represent with the consonant p plus a vowel are all represented in Linear B by different graphs.

Although the script is highly systematic, it provides a limited representation of the phonology of Mycenaean Greek. Greek contains many syllables that are not simple consonant-vowel combinations, and not all consonantal sounds are followed by vowels. Linear B is thus an incomplete script for representing the phonological structures of the spoken language. Hence, there are usually several ways of reading a series of Linear B graphs, and a correct reading depends upon the reader’s knowing what the text is about.

the alphabetic principle

The final stage in the evolution of writing systems was the discovery of the alphabetic principle: the procedure of breaking the syllable into its constituent consonantal and vowel sounds.

According to the British linguist Geoffrey Sampson, “Most, and probably all, ‘alphabetic’ scripts derive from a single ancestor: the Semitic alphabet, created sometime in the 2nd millennium [bce].” Speakers of some Semitic language, possibly Phoenician, who lived in the northern part of the Fertile Crescent invented the Semitic script. Modern versions of Semitic script include the Hebrew script and the Arabic script. Their most prominent characteristic is that they have graphs for consonants but not for vowels.

The Phoenician alphabet is known in modern times from the Canaanite and Aramaic inscriptions found across the Mediterranean region. Phoenician is very close to Hebrew and Moabite. Hebrew is the world’s oldest alphabet still widely used.

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