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?

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    This article might be of some help: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neolithic_Revolution
    – jfrankcarr
    Commented Apr 29, 2012 at 22:52
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    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
    Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 6:20
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    @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
    Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 7:19
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    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
    Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 8:19
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    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
    Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 8:24

4 Answers 4


The concept of writing appears to be something that societies naturally stumble upon when they reach a certain level of stratification and density. In other words, they have to be developed enough to need writing.

In pretty much all known 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.

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    @T.E.D.: Might also be worth mentioning what was happening all over the Northern Hemisphere for the period 100,000 years ago up to about 11,000 years ago - A mile-thick ice sheet covering most of it that dramatically interfered with the development of civilization by preventing the scale of population density that supports it. The retreat of this massive ice sheet is likely the reason for the Neolithic revolution to occur about the same point in time across the Northern Hemisphere. Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 9:34
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    @PieterGeerkens - I do think the development of agriculture was somehow enabled by the onset of the interglacial. The timing is spot on, and I don't believe in coincidences that big. However, since the ice sheets never reached down to the areas that first domesticated plants, I'm not real sure about the exact mechanism. Either way, the OP asked about writing, not agriculture.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 13:13
  • I am going to suggest that an alphabet was an invention beyond hindu-arabic numerals in originality/cleverness so the reason it took so long is that it does not inevitably develop and that is why at least modern writing took so long to develop -- why did hindu-arabic numeral/place holding representation take so long?
    – Jeff
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 16:25
  • @Jeff - An alphabet? I'd agree. There's probably an answer here somewhere where I went into this, but in short a syllabary has been independently invented a few times, but never (to my knowledge) an alphabet. It was really a freak accident of linguistics that allowed its invention. There was a language with a syllabary that didn't need separate glyphs for vowels because they were predicable, so they could drop 4/5th of the glyphs needed.Then its writing system got adopted by speakers of a language that didn't have that feature, and rather than come up with 5x as many glyphs, they found a hack.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 18:05
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    @Jeff - ...however a syllabary is a sufficiently advanced enough form of writing to be getting on with. Many eastern languages don't even go that far, and at best use a pictographic/syllabary hybrid (if not outright pictographic). That seems to serve their communications needs sufficiently for their purposes. So talk about an alphabet specifically is probably off-topic for this question.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 18:11

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.

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    This correct, with the proviso that "civilization" = "settled communities" = "farming".
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 13:22

Given that the earliest prehistoric art dates from around 35-40 000 years BCE, we can cautiously say that by then they were capable of symbolic representation, and potentially capable of writing.

Writing in at least one sense is much more difficult than art of any kind in that it requires a sustained development of vocabulary and grammar, probably over several generations, and this means a large enough group of people willing to sustain this development; I imagine that need wasn't felt strongly enough until things need to be accounted for in settled communities such as cities.


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.

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    I'm afraid all this sounds like conjecture and "what if". Not really a studied answer to the question.
    – Rajib
    Commented Jun 16, 2014 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". Commented Jun 16, 2014 at 3:02
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    '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
    Commented Jun 16, 2014 at 14:39
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    @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. Commented Jun 16, 2014 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
    Commented Jun 16, 2014 at 15:29

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