The Greatest Invention

Has any human achievement topped the invention of writing? Without it History, defined as “all that is remembered of the past as preserved in writing,” couldn’t exist. And neither could libraries. As Margaret Atwood states in the first episode of the Writing Code, a new 3-part series about the evolution of writing now airing on WHYY: “Writing is a code. It is the making of marks. You then have to understand that these marks can be retranslated into speech.” Uniquely among the many different systems of visual signification, writing captures spoken language. Writing appears to have evolved independently in as many as five locations around the world: Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, China, and Mesoamerica. Early writing served several functions. Among the Sumerians writing developed as an accurate method of keeping accounts; for the Maya its primary purpose was to aggrandize the institution of kingship. No matter what its purpose, writing transformed every society that it touched. The following books tell the story of how three of the world’s earliest writing systems — Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphics, as well as Sumerian cuneiform — were deciphered by modern scholars.

Breaking the Maya Code by Michael D. Coe, c1992
The Invention of Cuneiform: Writing in Sumer by Jean-Jacque Glassner, c2003
The Story of Writing by Andrew Robinson, c1995

The next time you find yourself struggling through 200 pages of assigned reading for an Anthro, History, Poly Sci, Psych, or other college course, remember those long-ago geniuses who invented writing, without whom none of it would be possible!

David C. Murray

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