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On The Origin Of Writing - Part One
Proto-writing - From Lascaux to Rongorongo
This mini-series, on the origins of writing, was guest written by a good friend. His anonymous nom de plume is Pygmy Glottochronologist, and he can be found musing on languages most arcane at @GreatValueArhat on Twitter.
If any common thread can be said to weave our corner of the internet together, it’s a keen interest in prehistory. The desire to peer into the time before time is strong in all of us, though we indulge it in the way that best suits our own form- archaeology, genetics, linguistics, even artistic expression. Those of you who know me will know me as a linguistics sperg, an appellation I suppose I began to bring upon myself in early childhood when my curiosity was first piqued by my family’s sojourns across North America, coming across Spanish, French, Cherokee, Yiddish, Amharic, among others. Thus, when it came time to plunge into the sands of time in which we all swim in my own idiom, language was my diving-board. My search for the voices of our forebears have led me down many winding paths- scattered in files on my desktop are dissertations on hypothetical Saami subrates, PDFs of Ainu dictionaries, and memes bemoaning the public’s lack of interest in the honey-gathering vocabulary of the Baka pygmies.
Of course, what separates the murky realm of prehistory we strange sort explore for recreation and the proper history of our grade-school social studies textbooks is inextricably related to language- specifically, to writing. It’s quite a strange concept, writing, and perhaps we’d be more inclined to realize this were our modern lives not so dependent upon it. You’re certainly too far away for me to speak with, and yet here you are, perhaps thousands of miles away and years after I write these words, and yet I am talking to you. The writings of those who came long before us and who are now long gone enable them to speak to us, if not with us, still today. It’s in this way that history begins- we know of Egypt, China, and Rome because we were written of Egypt, China, and Rome- we know little of the Independence I culture of northern Greenland for this exact inverse reason.
But what differentiates the wealth of information that we’ve been able to glean from the corpus of Egyptian or Akkadian writing from the petroglyphs of the American Southwest or the famous cave art of Lascaux? These latter two are also markings on a physical medium- why do they not yield the same information as the former? The answer is that they are not writing- not “proper” writing- and not for the considerations of cultural or historical merit. No, they aren’t writing for a very simple reason- they encode ideas and concepts, but not language.
Carvings, drawings, or other such markings are known in linguistics and archaeology as proto-writing. Rather than serving as a visual (or tactile, in the case of Braille) representation of spoken utterances, proto-writing such as this represents ideas and concepts for much the same reason that we use writing- for permanence, availability, and the transmission of information. Proto-writing is not capable of representing the same breadth of information as writing and its utility is limited in this way, but despite this our modern world is no stranger to the use of symbols to convey information. Consider the figures of men and women on bathroom doors, the snowflake on your phone’s weather app, or the red octagonal sign on the side of the road. There are benefits to this means of communication as well- since these signs represent concepts, and not language, they are broadly understood irrespective of tongue. The meaning of the sign below is familiar to billions of people irrespective of culture and language, the writing on it is not.
As one may well expect from the name of the term, proto-writing is widely considered to have preceded writing itself. Though it’s impossible to give an exact date of its earliest appearance, and there are various candidates for the laurels of the first example, the Kish tablet from the Sumerian city of the same name and dated to the Uruk IV period (ca. 3300-3200 BC) is an unambiguous example of proto-cuneiform writing. Though less certain and significantly more fragmentary in nature, the Jiahu symbols recovered from a site of the Peiligang culture of central China have been dated to around the year 6000 BC. Though the extreme paucity of the symbols (only sixteen have yet been noted) greatly inhibits both our understanding of the symbols themselves and their connection to any potential information that they convey, their similarity to the much later oracle bone script is difficult to ignore. If you’re familiar with Chinese, take a gander and see if you can’t make some of them out- even if you’re not, I think you’ll recognize the first.
As the above examples illustrate, societies are either exposed to the idea of proto-writing or originate it themselves at different times- meaning that one culture can have no concept of physical symbolic representation of ideas at the same time another does. Similarly, one culture can still use proto-writing at the same time another is using writing- and this is very clearly evidenced in history. The development of writing in Mesopotamia and Egypt spread outward and pushed aside most use of proto-writing in much of the ancient world- both in their own regions and beyond, as in Europe and India. These innovations however did not reach to the distant shores of the Pacific, and thus writing in China was able to develop independently, as was the case with writing in Mesoamerica. The cessation of the use of Mesoamerican and Mesopotamian writing has created an odd scenario- beyond a few strange examples like Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics - all writing today descends from the ancient scripts of the Nile or Yellow Rivers.
Because of the principle outlined above, we needn’t reach into the far-distant past to find examples of proto-writing- many are quite recent, even into the 20th century. An example of this can be found in the calendar sticks of the Pima people of southern Arizona. Fashioned from the ribs of the saguaro cactus, calendar sticks are a way to record the events of the elapsing years for posterity- each year coinciding with the summer harvest of the saguaro itself- indicated by a complete horizontal line. One of the earliest examples we have dates from around the year 1850 (remember, as the Pima year corresponds with the summer cactus harvest, it includes portions of two years tracked with the Western calendar.) In this year, an illness known as the Black Vomiting is said to have spread through Pima communities, an event which is corroborated in the accounts of early European explorers and settlers. Numerous such events are recorded, Apache raids- both as attackers and defenders, the arrival of the first white man in a given area, meteor showers, earthquakes, floods, and the results of sports competitions.
There are also examples of glyphs found in the world that cannot be neatly categorized into writing or proto-writing. This is generally the result of extremely fragmentary findings in the context of a culture that either no longer exists or has lost the knowledge of the glyphs- sometimes even down to their origin and purpose, let alone their meaning. A good example of this category would be the Rongorongo of Easter Island, a place that seems time and time again to vex the scholarly world’s attempts to understand it. Rongorongo- whose name means “to recite” or “to chant” is a system of glyphs that was first identified by outside scholarship in the 19th century, by which time knowledge of the system had long been lost by the Rapa Nui who inhabited the island before the arrival of Europeans, and who still do so today. Dating is tricky- the Rapa Nui held that it was brought to the island by either Hotu Matu’a or Tu’u ko Iho, the legendary first settlers of the island, though some interpret one glyph to represent the extinct Easter Island Palm, which disappears from the island’s pollen record around the year 1650 and thus, should this identification be correct, Rongorongo must precede this date.
What is certain about Rongorongo, and very little is, is that only a small fraction of the island’s population was able to make sense of the signs- if indeed it is writing, then literacy was a jealously guarded privilege of the nobility and the priesthood of Rapa Nui society. Disease and slave raiding reduced the Rapa Nui population to under two hundred individuals at its lowest
point, and in so doing eliminated any knowledge of the meaning of the glyphs from the remaining islanders. Yet, as I mentioned before, this strange, remote island continues to fascinate. Traditional Rapa Nui knowledge holds that the glyphs were brought from the outside, but where? Neither Polynesia nor distant South America have a tradition of writing, leading to the conclusion that it must be an in situ innovation. Similarly, if Rongorongo were found to be true writing it would be only the fifth independent invention of writing in the history of the world.
Since a proposal by the Russian linguists Nikolai Butinov and Yuri Knorozov, the latter famous for his contributions to the decipherment of the Maya script, suggesting that the highly repetitive nature of the glyphs is indicative of genealogical records, Rongorongo is most commonly considered to be proto-writing- in this instance a mnemonic aid for remembering the ancestries of rulers or other important families. Still others have suggested a use as a navigational aid, or as a calendar. This last proposal, by the late German ethnographer Thomas Barthel, represents the sole example of a Rongorongo text that has an accepted purpose, here, the insertion of an intercalary night required to keep the Rapa Nui calendar month synchronized with the phases of the moon. Even still though, the glyphs in this text cannot be read precisely, only their general function understood.
Perhaps the interested reader might be interested in taking a stab at Rongorongo themselves? The questions of form and function still remain nearly entirely open, and in many instances, most guesses are as good as any other. The ground on which archaeology and historical linguistics sit is sandy and shifting, and still today there are opportunities for interested parties to make their marks on our understanding of the world of the past. By all means, download reams of PDFs and drive yourself mad attempting to understand arcane symbols, or perhaps give them an inquisitive glance for an evening over coffee and never look at them again. But whatever you decide to do, reader, stay curious- in this I implore you.