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.

  • 4
    The prohibition on writing in early Celtic cultures makes them an interesting grey area. – called2voyage Jun 8 '16 at 18:57
  • 5
    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
  • 6
    A bit complicated because we necessarily have fewer records concerning illiterate societies from which to assess how "advanced" they were. – Gort the Robot Jun 8 '16 at 19:54
  • 5
    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
  • 1
    @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

The Inca might have been the largest non-literate society in history. Allow me to explain by way of two definitional digressions.

Any society has peripheral or marginal members that are less in tune. We won't know quite where to draw the line, and of course the population data we have is worse than incomplete. More so, the concept of society that we all live with, and the culture and institutions that make it up, are strongly tied to writing. Today, written communications are always used for planning, because they are persistent and carry much higher bandwidth than spoken language. The administrative capacity of a society organizing itself on the basis of spoken language and pictographs is so much less that these "political units" may have had pretty fuzzy edges.

So what qualifies as writing? I'm guessing you don't think pictographs do; all their explanations are visual. On this basis we rule out cave paintings and so on. However, the boundary between proto-writing and writing proper is loose. Pictographic systems gradually acquired the phonetic properties that allowed them to record whole phrases with embedded subclauses, such as incorporating the rebus. The gold standard is a universal medium that can represent any phrase, arranging symbols in a specific order so that a reader can recite them back intact. Let us review the principal indigenous American encodings:

Incan quipu are definitely a means of storing information. Despite centuries of analysis and millions of people still speaking Quechua, though, they have not been shown to encode phrases of language. Noone knows how to represent a story or a command in quipu form. For that reason, for now, they are considered a medium of accounting or proto-writing. The Incan empire has been estimated as exceeding 10M inhabitants.

Aztec codices are more representational and better understood than the quipus. Still, and despite millions of contemporary speakers of Nahuatl, Aztec writing has not been shown to represent specific language phrases. It has some phonetic components, but not in any order, so it is not a unified system for encoding the spoken language. This is why none of the codices preserve songs or epics and why Neo-Aztecan Mexican nationalists have not been able to publish any new works in the Aztec script. It does consist of symbols marked onto a flat sheet, but is only proto-writing. The Aztec empire might have been half the size of the Incan one.

Mayan glyphic inscriptions are more advanced. While they are not wholly understood, and use both phonetic and representational elements, these do occur in order, encoding whole phrases, and can be transcribed. Mayan writing is therefore a proper written language.

| improve this answer | |
  • 3
    I'm upvoting this answer, because I think its exactly right if you don't count quipu as writing. Unfortunately, I do count it as writing, (and did say so in the question). I still very much appreciate someone giving thought to this question, and also appreciate anyone giving the Inca props. – T.E.D. Oct 22 '19 at 21:35
  • @T.E.D. You wrote that "The Inca had Quipu", which is true, but they are not writing. Do you think cave paintings are writing too? – Aaron Brick Oct 22 '19 at 21:38
  • 1
    No, but Quipu definitely is. I'm looking more for a large society that didn't have anything like writing. The basic thing I'm wondering is if there's a correlation between the two (OK well, obviously there is) and if so, about where the historical record shows the limit is. – T.E.D. Oct 23 '19 at 13:18
  • 1
    ...so for my purposes, the fact that the Inca came up with a novel way to do it doesn't change the fundamentals of what it was they were doing. – T.E.D. Oct 23 '19 at 13:32
  • 3
    Honestly, I love the Incans, so I don't want this answer deleted. :-) – T.E.D. Oct 23 '19 at 15:15

The African state of Mthethwa might count. It was a nation that existed from around 1775 to 1817 that predated the Zulu Kingdom and, as far as we know, had no formal writing system. The nation used military innovations such as the system of age regiments (amabutho) that would come to be utilized by the Zulu empire. While not as big as the Inca, it was around the size of the other civilizations listed by the question such as pre-contact Tongans and the Cahokia. It is, as far as we know, truly illiterate unlike the Inca who had a writing system in the form of the quipu and used intricate knots to record information like numbers, systems of tribute, and phonetic symbols. Since the Inca used quipu to record taxation, dates in the form of basic calendars, and even to keep track of basic battle statistics, they can be considered a writing system far more complex than anything created by works of truly illiterate societies like cave paintings or etchings on pottery. Since the Zulu - their successors - developed a writing system later in its history after contact with European missionaries, the Mthethwa might be the largest state with no official writing system at any point in the nation's history.

| improve this answer | |
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Mark C. Wallace Jul 10 at 13:45
  • Looked at this a bit more today. It was apparently a confederation rather than an outright cohesive empire (I'm not sure that's a problem for my purposes, just interesting info), and I can't seem to find any kind of even guestimate for its population (that is a problem). – T.E.D. Sep 3 at 18:42

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.

| improve this answer | |
  • 6
    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
  • 10
    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
  • 1
    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

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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