Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Cuneiform: the first system of writing

For hundreds of thousands of years man walked the earth searching for food and shelter like savage, hairy beasts.  They lived in trees and caves.  They died before their brains had a chance to develop any gray matter, taking what they learned with them to their graves.

Men learned to use stones to kill and cut animals for food.  They learned that blunt stones could mash in animal skulls, and sharp stones were good for hunting.  They learned a language so they could share what they learned with the next generation, which learned to attach the stones to sticks to make knives, arrows and axes.

They gathered together in little groups and learned to live as one among the land.  They learned that by working together it was easier to find food and shelter.  They learned what plants were good to eat and learned to cultivate the land so they could make their own food.

Along the Tigris and Euphrates a variety of small civilizations formed.  They knew from previous generations how to kill, and they knew where to aim their sharp objects to make killing quicker.  Around 30,000 B.C. they teamed together to kill large mammoths, which fed many mouths.

They painted pictures in caves using black ochre of the kill, using red to mark the organ that beats. Surely future generations will know that by placing the spear through this organ the beast will fall, setting it up for attack by the rest of the clan.

They learned of the inundation of the river, and worked together to manage the waters.  They created canals and pumps to pump water to irrigate the land.  This was the beginning of the agricultural revolution.  Small villages formed and grew into independent cities.  Each city was a state in itself, called a city state.

Each city was a domain of a god who resided in the center of the city, in the temple and to whom everything belonged: the temple, the city, the land around it.  He was served by minor gods and by humans: free farmers who tilled the soil, and slaves who helped the free farmers.

They were able to do this because because of a language was created.  It is of my opinion that the discovery of language, even more so than the discovery of stone tools, was the main thing that separated paleolithic humans from their rudimentary ancestors and other animals.

Humans developed a language so what one generation learned could be communicated to the next, with each new generation adding their own knowledge.  This accumulation of knowledge lead to  better ways of hunting, better ways of making housing, and easier living.

This gave one man, or a group of men and women, time to sit around, to mingle their minds, to create even better things.  They learned they needed to record events so they could better manage the land.  They learned to draw pictures to represent ideas, hence the first cave drawings. These were not done so much for fun but to relay information to the next generation.

The first civilization was between the Tigris and Euphrates, a land called Mesopotamia -- the land between two rivers.  Here the individual rulers of the city states decided they must work together to manage the rivers because separate the task was impossible. One of the societies that emigrated to the area were the Phoenicians, and they were the first to create a form of writing.  It was pictographic, with each picture representing an idea.  this allowed them to record events, stories, myths, legends, magic lore, and recipes for food and medicine.

Yet it was the Sumerians who formed the first civilization, and one man man became the leader, the king of all the city states.  It was his job to make sure people worked together to please the gods and manage the land. Their language was Sumerian, and they borrowed the Phoenician form of writing and fixed it up to suit their own needs.  This happened sometimes around 3200 B.C.

The written language was called Cuneiform, and it required scribes to use a stylus to draw the pictures on stone tablets, and the tablets were dried in ovens and made so they were easily portable.  They could be set in temples for all who learned there to see and learn. The people who learned to read and write the language were called scribes, and these were among the most intelligent and important people in the land.

For a language, myths, legends, and other ideas to be shared across generations it had to be communicated.  At first these were shared from parent to child, perhaps by songs or poems that were easy to recite and remember.  Yet ultimately better systems were developed.

The best method was draw on soft clay with a stylus, perhaps a reed.  After the clay tablet was covered with writing it was sun dried or baked in an oven to become hard enough that many have lasted to modern times.  An individual tablet was not large, and a book consisted of series of numbered tablets.  Each tablet was marked with the title of the book and frequently having a "catch phrase" of the last line of words from the previous tablet.

The scribe drew pictures of objects (pictograms) that simply meant the object represented.  Yet the language evolved so that the drawings were replaced by wedge-shaped imprints on clay tablet, probably made with a reed.  This system of writing is referred to as cuneiform.

Each generation added to the system of writing.  Their system, best known as cuneiform, became the greatest gift of the Sumerian people.  This language was subsequently adapted not only by the Babylonians and Assyrians, other civilizations that developed in Mesopotamia, but also the Hittites and later the Persians.

Yet as the language was adapted by other societies, difficulties arose.  The language was adapted for Sumerian language, so the Babylonians had to make changes to adapt it to their own.  They gave new rules and values to the signs and, as a result, a sign may possess several different values making it difficult for modern historians to decipher.  

The ancient Egyptians needed a written language too, and for the same reasons as the Mesopotamians.  At firs they borrowed from the Babylonians, as is evidenced by the stone tablets that Moses had the 10 Commandments engraved into.

Yet the Egyptians, some time around 2700 B.C., created a written language of their own, and they discovered the papyri could be prepared in such a way as to create white scrolls to be written upon.  The Ancient Hebrew created a language too, with both the Egyptian and Hebrew languages going even further than cuneiform to where there were signs for every consonant, and a phonetic (from Phoenicians) language developed.  They even started writing left to right, instead of right to left. 

Yet Mesopotamia was so centrally located that their writings, and their civilization, had a strong influence on it's neighbors -- Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, and Persia.  Some even believe they had contact with and an influence upon India and maybe even China.  

Trails and caravans developed between nations that allowed people to cross distant lands, including deserts, to share goods, fairy tales, legends, technical knowledge, recipes, drugs, surgical operations, culture and language.  Ideas could not be shared with other people and from one generation to the next.  

Despite the complications of this cuneiform system, it allowed stories and myths, mathematics, astronomy, astrology and other ideas that were brought in by the various societies assimilated to the area to  be learned by all, and shared with later generations.  

Thanks to this system of writing ideas of the Ancient Sumerians ultimately influenced the Hebrews and, thanks to the Bible they wrote in the 1000 years prior to the invasion of Alexander the Great, Sumerian ideas influence people to this day.  

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