Take the 2-minute tour ×
History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Linguistic studies indicate that human languages were not that different from modern languages 6000 and 7000 years ago. They had distinguishable sounds, vowels, consonants, syllables, roots and stems and so on.

Biology also indicates that mental abilities of humans changed little over at least the last 100000 years.

I wonder why no form of writing ever emerged before some 7000-9000 years ago, even logographic, symbolic, runic or any other kind?

I also wonder why the writing emerged nearly simultaniously in unrelated parts of the world (America, Africa, East Asia). Even if there was distance of some thousands of years between emergence of these writing systems, it still looks quite simultanious compared to the scale of some 100000-200000 years of the history of the modern human.

Why did no form of writing or symbolic expression appear independently in any part of the world, say 15-20 thousand years ago or so?

share|improve this question
This article might be of some help: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neolithic_Revolution –  jfrankcarr Apr 29 '12 at 22:52
There are two theories on how evolution works; one is that changes happen over a long period of time, a mutation occurs, the mutation doesn't kill the creature, but instead helps it, so the mutation gets passed on, and after 100000 years, the entire species has the mutation. The other theory is that something in the environment forces a many random mutations in the species, and the ones that worked get passed on. I'm not an expert in the period you are talking about, but, I'd guess that something changed in the environment and caused a mutation in the human brain to allow writing. –  Russell Apr 30 '12 at 6:20
@Russell: Umm...Mutations do happen all the time and successful ones propagate as species that have them have a survival advantage. I don't think there's any doubt about that. Also while there're definitely structures in the human brain that allow something like writing to happen, the OP already mentioned that there was little change in the brain in the past 100K years. Apart from that, there's little reason to think that there's a specific gene that controls whether a person can write or not. –  Opt Apr 30 '12 at 7:19
Note that currently all nations and races can write, even those who were in no contact for more than 10000 years. A mutation could not spread to the people all over the world (notice that there are ancient mutations that still did not spread over one continent, Europe). –  Anixx Apr 30 '12 at 8:19
Also if the mutation happened only so recently, we would have a certain percent of people who could not write. There was no bottleneck for ability to write because many nations had no writing up to modern times (but all their members can write well if properly taught). –  Anixx Apr 30 '12 at 8:24
add comment

3 Answers 3

The first thing to note is that the concept of writing appears to be a very hard idea to come up with de-novo. There's only two times in human history that we know for sure it happened that way; once in the Near East, and once in Mesoamerica. (Everybody else could arguably have seen someone else doing it and copied the idea, much like the Cherokee did in the early 1800s).

In both cases it was first used chiefly for accounting, and then evolved to keep track of the accomplishments of kings.

So what appears to be a prerequisite for the development of writing is a settled, stratified society that has enough trade to support full-time accountants and enough stratification to support kings.

That only happens in settled farming societies. So the development of writing had to wait for the development of settled intensive farming of domesticated crops - AKA a Neolithic society. This didn't happen until about 9000 BCE. So you have to start your clock there.

share|improve this answer
Your information on the origin of writing is outdated and incorrect. The discovery of the Dispilio Tablet is a pretty clear indication that the Vinča signs were actually true writing, and not protowriting. Similarly, it's becoming clear that Chinese writing also developed much earlier, deriving from Jiahu symbols. (The Mesopotamians used baked clay in a dry climate rather than animal skins or soft bark, so they were easier to discover... Europe and China each beat them to the punch by a few thousand years.) –  RI Swamp Yankee Nov 5 '12 at 14:30
@RISwampYankee - Frankly, you are absolutely right (I have some other examples too. The one that completely changed my thinking was Quipu). I've been dissatisfied with that portion of the logic in this answer for a while (and the fact that its accepted IMHO makes it worse). I hate to drastically change an accepted answer, but I think it has to be done. –  T.E.D. Nov 5 '12 at 15:07
@T.E.D. I unaccepted the answer so that you could change it :-) –  Anixx Aug 17 '13 at 9:41
add comment

Civilization only began in the past 8000 years or so. If you have a civilization, there's a much bigger need of a writing system (for record keeping for instance) than there's without a civilization so that might be part of the explanation.

I should add that although there wasn't a writing system before 10K years ago, we do have cave paintings going back to 30K years ago.

share|improve this answer
This correct, with the proviso that "civilization" = "settled communities" = "farming". –  T.E.D. Apr 30 '12 at 13:22
add comment

The first thing is that we do not know how difficult it is to invent scripture if you haven't it. In retrospect things which we consider now "easy" were judged as rubbish or impossible.

The second thing: It is entirely possible that it was invented far before the known scriptures, even as far as 100 000 BC. But how could we know ?

Lets say our culture will be wiped out by a global catastrophe. What will remain of our culture ?

All the computer media ? Destroyed in decades.
Books, scriptures, microfilm ? Destroyed in centuries.

Only metal/stone/ivory engravings under favorable circumstances would be able to last 10 000 years or more and now think how much of our knowledge will remain. So it is possible that ancient people wrote but used materials like us which were not able to last this timespans. Sure, they could have engraved them on the things we found. But very old findings are very rare (we simply missed them) or they did not use them for cultural reasons (taboo).

As long as we have no proof we must assume that they did not write.

share|improve this answer
I'm afraid all this sounds like conjecture and "what if". Not really a studied answer to the question. –  Rajib Jun 16 at 2:56
Uh, history is conjecture and "what if". The fine thing about "studied answers" is that they have some indices to work on (scriptures, sources etc.) to rule some hypotheses out. These simply do not exist for the very reason I told you. Tell me what do you expect as a "studied answer". –  Thorsten S. Jun 16 at 3:02
'history is conjecture and "what if"'. Not really. Your answer "Lets say our culture will be wiped out by a global catastrophe" is fit for science fiction - not HSE. You may like to reword your answer, if it is your claim that writing did exist prior to 9000 years ago. –  Rajib Jun 16 at 14:39
@Rajib Please reread the answer and do not state what it does not state. My claim is not that writing did exist prior to 9000 years ago, I even directly state it in the last sentence. My answer is: We do not know because we have no idea how difficult it is to invent writing, all people we could ask are dead and every other source we could use is likely decayed. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. –  Thorsten S. Jun 16 at 14:54
What is your answer to the OP question? i.e. why was writing not invented earlier? I BTW have not stated anything- I merely suggested you clean up your answer to be less confusing/convoluted wrt the original question. –  Rajib Jun 16 at 15:29
add comment

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.