The Origin and Development of Writing in Mesopotamia:

An Economic Interpretation

By Arden Eby

R. F. Atkinson, in his Book Knowledge and Explanation in History, outlines three schools of historical explanation: 1) the positivist school, represented by philosophers such as Hemple; 2) the pragmatic generalization school, represented by the majority of today's medieval and modern historians; and 3) the narrative-contingency school, represented by the majority of today's ancient historians.1 No doubt the narrative school--that school which suggests that a simple statement of fact without reference to causation is all that is necessary for explanation--is attractive to ancient historians. Seldom is there enough evidence existent to establish any sort of causation, much less make pragmatic generalizations or general laws.

Such is the case with the proto-history of the written word. Nevertheless, some attempts have been made to establish (or at least to suggest) causes for this development. This paper will present the facts concerning the origin of writing in Mesopotamia, in as brief a manner as possible, and then examine two prevalent theories regarding that origin. Finally, it will argue that, regardless of the mechanics of the invention of writing, all current evidence, taken together, demonstrates that it was economically motivated.

Most historians of ancient Mesopotamia mention the origin of writing as did Jorgen Laessor: "A script was invented early in Mesopotamia. The older inscriptions date back to 3000 BC." 2 The fact that writing was invented at all seems to be enough. However, a few brave souls have ventured to offer suggestions as to how this, called the greatest event in human history, came about.

By the third millennium BC, the Sumerians already had a highly developed civilization. These men spoke a language that is unique--it had no known relationship to any other language in either grammar or vocabulary. However, the script they developed was later taken over by the Akkadians--a Semitic people living north of Sumer. This was possible because the Sumerian script was pictographic--it did not represent sounds of any kind. Therefore the Sumerian words and terms could be read in their Akkadian equivalents. For example, the Sumerian word for man, "LU," was read by the Akkadians "Awilum": "Gal," the Sumerian for "great," was read by the Akkadians "rabum;" andf the Sumerian word for "King." "LU-GAL" (great man) was read by the Akkadians "Sarrum."3 The script adopted by the Akkadians was a highly developed form of picture writing called "cuneiform" (from the Latin cunneus or "wedge").

Although there are areas of disagreement regarding the origin of this Sumerian Script, one area on which there is no disagreement is that the script was not "invented"--it did not appear "full blown" in the fourth millennium BC. The earliest Sumerian Scripts were discovered at Uruk in 1924 by a group of German archeologists led by Julius Jordan.4 These texts were found at the Uruk IV stratum and were therefore dated between 4100 and 3800 BC. Approximately 1000 texts containing many concrete pictographs and what is considered to be the simplest form of writing the cylinder seals, were found.5 These seals contain the identifying personal marks of may ancient Sumerians, such a this one reprinted in Gelb's book:

These seals also contained a number of pictographs referring to such concrete objects as cattle, as in the following:


The seal on the right indicates 54 ox-cow or 54 total head of cattle.

From these pictographs and other evidence. Gelb formulated a hypothesis concerning their origin. The core of Gelb' s thesis in A Study of Writing is that written communication always evolves from the simple and concrete to the complex and abstract. Pictures, at first drawn for aesthetic or religious purposes were then adapted into identifying mnemonic devices, such as the following Hittite masons' marks used by ancient stone-cutters to identify different types of cuts.


These marks can be "read" by modern scholars, but do not have a grammar or a vocabulary. If the cylinder seals represent identifying mnemonic devices, then one would expect to find Gelb's next stage. The word symbol, changed from mnemonic devices to word, also became more abstract in appearance. For example, the proto-sumerian symbol stands for `woman' or `female' in general. The Akkadian logogram (wordsign) for `woman', `female' is the sign, "munus," developed from a straight line approximation and rotation over 90 degree from the pubic triangle [Image]. The Akkadian logogram for `mountain', "kur" was an actual drawing of a mountain peak. Mountains, however, are not present in Akkad, which was located in the alluvial plains around the rivers Tigris and . The word `mountains' (north of Akkad) therefore also symbolizes "abroad," or "foreign country." The Sumerian word (and later the Akkadian logogram) for `female slave' is represented by the composite logogram, in Akkadian: "munus.kur," a combination of `woman' and "foreign / mountain." thus the word for "female slave" is "woman from the mountains/from abroad." 9 This process was repeated time and again. The evolution of a variety of symbols is depicted in the chart below:

We would then expect to find Gelb's next stage, the syllabic stage, at Uruk II. However, logography (picture writing), ideography (symbols for concrete objects such as a cuneiform cross, for "star" also signifying, in its abstract form, the sky god "AN"). and early phonetic devices (the word "men" symbolized by a crown is used as part of the name "Su-en" or "Sin") are all found in levels IV and III.11 Gelb noted this and suggested that the evolution of writing from pictograph to syllable must have occurred very rapidly.12

Gelb's thesis has been contradicted by Denise Schmandt-Besserat in her article "The Earliest Precursor of Writing," which was published in The Scientific American in 1978. Schmandt pointed out that 90% of the Uruk IV signs are indeographic, with absolutely pictographic symbols of wild animals and "High Tech" devices such as sledges appearing right alongside the more numerous ideographic signs. 13

So we have, it appears, ideographic symbols appearing at what was thought to be the period of the genesis of pictographic writing! Schmandt disagrees with Gelb (and incidentally agrees with Hugh Nibley 14) by suggesting that pictographic writing was not, after all, the beginning of a long evolution that consummated in the alphabet. She feels, rather, that a sort of "token" system was the earliest precursor of writing.

In 1927, A. Leo Oppenhime excavated the site of Nuzi in Iraq. He then reported finding a large number of tokens at various levels of the tell. In addition to these "tokens," he found an egg-shaped tablet that recorded the ownership of 48 animals; inside the egg were 48 tokens, suggesting a dual accounting system.15

Noticing these strange tokens, Schmandt began visiting Museums in the U.S., Europe and the near East to examine their small clay artifacts, noting their original locations and strata. Every museum and site she visited yielded these tokens--most were labeled "playthings," "games" or "amulets." Tokens of the same scheme were found from Beldibe in western Turkey to Chanu-Daro in eastern Iran. But the most important find was at a Neolithic site near Khartoum in Egypt. Evidently a single system of communication stretched from the 5th to the 4th Millennium BC!16

These tokens, Schmandt found, were remarkably consistent until around 3100 BC. At that point, the development of a specialized farming economy and cities prompted the need for much more advanced forms of record keeping. Around the end of the fourth millennium BC, egg-shaped envelopes, such as the one found at Nuzi, started to appear. The earliest of these contained only the name seal. But if a transaction was made, the seals had to be broken to display the contents. This problem was solved by impressing the tokens on the soft clay before sealing them inside the "egg," thus preserving both the envelope and the contents. Later the tokens themselves, being unnecessary, were dropped, but the signs remained to be incorporated into the script of the Uruk. Schmandt prepared another chart of the tokens closest to early Sumerian inscriptions:


Notice that the token for the number "one" is exactly the same as the one used by Gelb (shown earlier in this paper) to support his thesis.17

The common thread in both of these theories appears to be economic motivation. Arnold Toynbee's challenge-response theory suggests that it is the challenges of life in the desert that produced writing. Mesopotamia is a semi-arid plane. The only way for life to have existed there was to divert the rivers for irrigation--the digging of channels and dikes took organization. This organization, said Toynbee, led to an increase in specialization--it was more practical for one man to farm and another to build dikes. These conditions lent themselves, naturally, to the organization of trade, which, in turn necessitated a means of accounting18, or, as put by the French archaeologist Jean Claude Marguenon:

Born of economic necessity, the development of writing was due to the development of stock-farming within a social structure necessitating the presentation of accounts to owner who lived elsewhere. When accounts became too large to memorize, human ingenuity was challenged to find a substitute.19

We have summarized the evidence employed by all the major archaeological theories concerning the origin of writing. Though they might disagree on the details, they all clearly suggest that this supremely important invention was motivated by economic necessity. One might suggest that the theories presented are merely unproven hypotheses however, one must admit that they are highly plausible (if not probable) hypotheses. It is left for new Gelbs, Schmandts and Margureons to unravel the additional details of the story of the invention of writing.


1 Atkinson, R.F., Knowledge and Explanation in History. (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978), pp. 95-104

2 Lassor, Jorgen. People of Ancient Assyria, (New York: Barnes and Noble Inc.; 1963), pp. 78.

3 Naveh, Josef, The Early History of the Alphabet, (Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 1982), p.13.

4 Denese Schmandt-Besserat, "The Earliest Precursor of Writing." The Scientific American, (June 1978), p. 20.

5 5- I. J. Gelb, A Study of Writing, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), p. 62.

6 Ibid., p. 66.

7 Ibid., p. 64.

8 Ibid., p. 190-197.

9 Ibid., p. 37.

10 Ibid.

11 Gelb, p. 65.

12 Ibid.

13 Schmandt-Besserat, 1978.

14 Hugh Nibley, Nibley On the Timely and the Timeless, (Provo Utah: BYU Press, 1978), p. 103.

15 Schmandt, p. 17.

16 Ibid., p.18-20.

17 Gelb, p. 64.

18 Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History 2 vol., (London: Oxford University Press, 1958),
p. 44.

19 Jean Claude Margureon, Archelogica Mundi: Mesopotamia, H. B. Harrison trans. (N. Y.: World Publishing co., 1965), p. 73.