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The recent excellent thread on when reading and writing became commonplace led me to contemplate what humanity was doing before and during the invention of writing.

The answer seems pretty clear: they were keeping track of their property and inheritances, and calculating how food rations were to be divided up. These were the activities that led directly to writing.

According to one attractive theory, due to Denise Schmandt-Besserat, the earliest such records date from about 9500 years ago, in the Balkans and the island of Malta. In this era, the aboriginal people of Europe began to make clay tokens to represent property. They were simple geometric shapes: cylinders, spheres, cubes, and pyramids. Each token presumably represented one domestic animal: sheep, goats, bulls, etc. This system of accounting for property apparently endured for at least 4000 years.

About 6000 years ago, more or less, collections of these tokens were placed within larger hollow spheres of clay. It seems likely that these spheres represented an accounting of an entire inheritance, or gift, or purchase.

Of course, there was a problem with such spheres: one could easily forget exactly what was contained within. The solution, which appeared at about 5500 years ago, was to mark the outside of the sphere while it was still damp and soft. Spheres have been found that have circular, square, and triangular impressions on their surfaces -- and the number of impressions on the outside matches exactly the contents of the sphere.

This continued for a few hundred years, and then some very bright individual had a brainstorm: Why do we need to put any tokens inside the sphere, when all the information is already encoded on its surface? In fact, why use a hollow sphere at all, when a flat slab would do just as well?

The first flat slabs of clay with impressed markings appear about 5300 years ago. The technology radiated rapidly outwards, and was picked up by the Sumerians (in what is today known as Iraq). The Sumerians quickly improved the primitive markings, and produced the script we now know as cuneiform. It was not a true alphabet, but it was dramatically more powerful and expressive than anything that had been used before.

Egyptian hieroglyphics began similarly on clay, and moved to papyrus only later. They were probably influenced by the clay tokens and spheres of the Balkans and Malta, or it might have been a parallel invention of their own. In any event, they were sufficiently far enough advanced by 5100 years ago to be able to record, in hieroglyphic writing, the union of the two formerly independent kingdoms of the Lower and Upper Nile. The written record of that political union -- which created the Egyptian state -- counts as the first event in recorded history.

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