Was writing invented for accounting and administration or did it evolve from religious movements, sorcery and dreams?

Interesting piece by Michael Erard.

Who needs writing, anyway? Seen through the filter of a military analogy, writing might be like nuclear weapons (which were developed specifically by the military), or it might be like gunpowder, which was discovered by alchemists searching for life-prolonging substances hundreds of years before its use in weapons. The question is this: is writing the product of the state in every single stage of its evolution, invented de novo by administrative elites? Or is it composed of pre-existing representational practices that expanded to fill the needs of the state and complex society?

The evidence suggests that writing is actually more like gunpowder than like nuclear weapons. For one thing, in the four wellsprings of writing, it never (as far as we know) sprang forth as fully phonographic but evolved to become that – there’s usually some kind of proto-writing, and some kind of proto-proto-writing. I like to think of writing as a layered invention. First there’s the graphic invention: the notion of making a durable mark on a surface. Humans have been doing this for at least 100,000 years – the bureaucracy didn’t give humans that power. Then the symbolic invention: let’s make this mark different from all other marks and assign it a meaning that we can all agree on. Humans have been doing this for a long time, too. Then there’s the linguistic one: let’s realise that a sound, a syllable and a word are all things in the world that can be assigned a graphic symbol. This invention depends on the previous ones, and itself is made of innovations, realisations, solutions and hacks. Then comes the functional invention: let’s use this set of symbols to write a list of captives’ names, or a contract about feeding workers, or a letter to a distant garrison commander. All these moves belong to an alchemy of life that makes things go boom.

When you consider these layers of invention, you discover that early writing in Mesopotamia, for instance, had no overtly political function, as the archaeologist David Wengrow at University College London argues in What Makes Civilization? (2010). Instead, for the first 300-400 years of early cuneiform texts in the region (from about 3300-2900 BCE), Wengrow sees a bookkeeping function for managing temple-factories of the day. ‘There is hardly any use of writing for what I would view as state-like functions (eg, dynastic monuments, taxation, tribute, narratives of political events) until the Early Dynastic period,’ he told me.

These pieces make you think and wonder..


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