The world’s earliest writing: Cuneiform

Mesopotamia is the site of the world’s earliest civilization, and is where cuneiform originated.

The Sumerians, who thrived during the third century BC, developed cuneiform, which began as a form of writing based on symbols. Cuneiform later became alphabetic in form, leading to ambiguities in interpretation.
Detail - Cuneiform Inscription - In the collection of the National Archaeological Museum, Tehran
Meeting the needs of an increasingly complex civilization

The earliest writing systems evolved independently and at roughly the same time in Egypt and Mesopotamia (present-day southern Iraq), but modern scholars suggest that Mesopotamia’s writing appeared first.

That writing system, invented by the Sumerians, emerged in Mesopotamia around 3500 BCE. The Sumerians invented cuneiform, which involves the use of a wedge-shaped reed stylus to make impressions in clay. The clay (or brick) was then either baked in a kiln or dried by the sun. The word cuneiform is derived from Latin — cuneus, for wedge, and forma, meaning shape.

Cuneiform - Louvre museumAt first, this writing was representational: a bull might be represented by a picture of a bull, and a pictograph of barley signified the word barley.

Ultimately, this system was inconvenient for conveying anything other than simple nouns, and it became more and more abstract as it evolved to encompass more abstract concepts — eventually taking form in the world’s earliest writing: cuneiform.

An increasingly complex civilization encouraged the development of an increasingly sophisticated form of written communication. Cuneiform came to function both phonetically (representing a sound) and semantically (representing a meaning such as an object or concept) rather than only representing objects directly as a picture.

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Agriculture leading to the world’s first cities

The earliest known civilization developed along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, in what is now the country of Iraq. The development of successful agriculture, which relied on the region’s fertile soils and an irrigation system that took advantage of its consistent water supply, led to the development of the world’s first cities.

The development of stable agriculture through irrigation meant people no longer had to follow changing sources of food. With this stability farmers in the region were able to domesticate animals such as goats, sheep, and cattle. They successfully grew crops of barley and other grains, from which they began to produce dietary staples and other products, such as bread and beer.

As their agricultural practices became more successful, farmers were able to create surpluses. In order to ensure the crop yield, a system of canals was dug to divert water for agriculture and lessen the impact of annual floods.

With these advances, a significant population of successful farmers, herders, and traders were able to move beyond subsistence agriculture. A series of successive kingdoms — Sumer, Akkadia (also spelled Accadia), Assyria, Babylonia — built cities with monumental architecture, in which trade and commerce were thriving, and even early forms of plumbing were invented for the ruling class.

Cuneiform in Monolith - Louvre

Inspired by the development of trade

The development of trade was one of several important factors in Mesopotamia that created a need for writing. The development of complex societies, with social hierarchies, private property, economies that supported tax-funded authorities, and trade, all combined to create a need for written records.

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Cuneiform Foundation Tablet - museum at Persepolis, IranIn turn, the ever more sophisticated system of writing that developed also helped the civilization develop further, facilitating the management of complex commercial, religious, political, and military systems.

The earliest known writing originated with the Sumerians about 5500 years ago. Writing was not invented for telling stories of the great conquests of kings or for important legal documents. Instead, the earliest known writing documented simple commercial transactions.

The evolution of writing

The evolution of writing occurred in stages. In its earliest form, commercial transactions were represented by tokens. A sale of four sheep was represented by four tokens designed to signify sheep. At first such tokens were made of stone. Later, they were created from clay. Tokens were stored as a record of transactions.

In the next stage of development, pictographs (simple pictures of an object) were drawn into wet clay, and these images replaced the tokens. Scribes no longer drew four sheep pictographs to represent four sheep. Instead, the numeral for four was written beside one sheep pictograph.

Clay Tablet with Cuneiform Inscriptions Achaemenid period - museum at PersepolisThrough this process, writing was becoming disentangled from direct depiction. More complicated number systems began to develop. The pictographic symbols were refined into the writing system known as cuneiform.

Using cuneiform, written symbols could be quickly made by highly trained scribes through the skillful use of the wedge-like end of a reed stylus.

Eventually, writing became phonetic as well as representational. Once the writing system had moved from being pictographic to phonetic writing could communicate abstractions more effectively: names, words, and ideas.

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Cuneiform was used to record literature such as the Epic of Gilgamesh — the oldest epic still known. In addition, the new writing method was used to communicate and formalize legal systems, most famously Hammurabi’s Code.

With cuneiform, writers could tell stories, relate histories, and support the rule of kings.

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