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I got to thinking some more recently about the interrelation of societal advancement and information availability. That got me wondering about the limits.

In short, what is the most advanced society that has been shown to exist with no writing?

Yes, I know "advanced" is way too subjective. So for the purposes of this question, let's replace that with largest in terms of human members of the society. So what was the largest known population of an nonliterate political unit in history?

I'm not interested in parasitic societies like the medieval Mongols, who get what they have only by conquering more advanced literate states (also, the Mongols technically weren't nonliterate after 1204, but hopefully you get the idea).

Also, I'm not concerned here about cause and effect. Perhaps large organized societies naturally create writing when they need it, or perhaps they just can't get past a certain size without it. Either way, I want to know what the biggest was.

At first I thought the Aztecs might qualify, but no they had codexes. The Inca had Quipu. The pre-contact Tongans might be a candidate at around 20k(?), as might Cahokia if they indeed had no writing. Some of the New Guineans might be in the running too, but I don't know how large any of their pre-contact political units ever got.

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    The prohibition on writing in early Celtic cultures makes them an interesting grey area. – called2voyage Jun 8 '16 at 18:57
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    How do you define illiterate? There is a blurry line between paintings and pictogram based languages (hieroglyphics / mandarin). Major cultures almost all had some form of art either carved or painted – sdrawkcabdear Jun 8 '16 at 19:42
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    A bit complicated because we necessarily have fewer records concerning illiterate societies from which to assess how "advanced" they were. – Steven Burnap Jun 8 '16 at 19:54
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    Unfortunately historical records are not anywhere near complete enough to provide a reasonable answer to this. Even fairly advanced civilizations with well developed writing systems can have their writing nearly unknown (for example, the only known book in Etruscan survived just because the linen it was written on was later used as mummy wrappings). We have to be aware of a large civilization (in antiquity evidence of it could be subsumed by later civilizations), and then be aware of their writing systems, which may have existed but just not in a preserved form. – pluckedkiwi Jun 9 '16 at 12:46
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    @Anixx -- the Aztec codices, like the Mayan codices, were books full of writing (and illustrations, and some mathematics). – Peter Erwin Jun 13 '16 at 20:28
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Perhaps the Mali Empire or Zulu. I couldn't find anything about written records by themselves. If the Mali didn't write then they were probably much bigger, longer lasting and older than the Zulu kingdom.

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    I was under the impression Mali was essentially organized after Berber contact to monopolize the trans-Saharan gold trade with the Arab world, so they'd likely have been keeping records in Arabic. Wikipedia says it was a Muslim kingdom, which pretty much requires literacy in Arabic if I'm not mistaken. The Zulu seem like an interesting possibility though. – T.E.D. Jun 8 '16 at 20:00
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    From the Wikipedia page for the Mali Empire, concerning the ruler Musa Keita I (aka Mansa Musa): "He could read and write Arabic and took an interest in the scholarly city of Timbuktu, which he peaceably annexed in 1324." So, yeah, a literate society. – Peter Erwin Jun 13 '16 at 20:24
  • Zulu might be the best answer here as it wasn't a written language until after missionaries arrived and started using the Latin alphabet to record it. +1 – Twelfth Dec 12 '17 at 19:51

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