The inhabitants of ancient Mesopotamia, where Iraq now stands, are usually credited with the invention of writing. Clay tablets from slightly before 3,000 BC show a predecessor of the script called cuneiform, which records the affairs, and presumably the language, of the early Babylonians.
But did writing really originate on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers? Not according to archeologist Günter Dreyer, director of the German Institute of Archaeology in Cairo. If he’s right, the Earth-shattering invention occurred on the banks of the Nile.
In a December press release that was picked up by many wire services, Dreyer said he’d found writing on a group of small bone or ivory labels dating from 3,300 to 3,200 BC. Writing, here, means a symbolic representation of language, not pictures representing concrete objects.
The labels were attached to bags of linen and oil in the tomb of King Scorpion I in Egypt. They apparently indicated the origin of the commodities.
Like the symbolic systems of pictographs that preceded writing, the inscriptions contained symbols. Pictographs, however, are not truly writing, but rather drawings that represent specific words or objects.
Thus a pictograph of an eye might stand for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.
But Dreyer maintains that the labels he’s studied carry inscriptions with phonetic significance. That would make them a symbolic representation of language — true writing.
And if he’s right, they are the earliest known writing.
Almost. In fact, he says the labels helped him decipher earlier inscriptions on pottery found in the same cemetery. If Dreyer is right, these inscriptions, dating from 3400 to 3,300, are the first known writing.
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