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On The Origin Of Writing - Part Two
Proto-writing: Kaidā, Adinkra and Ersu Shaba
This is part two in a series on the origins of writing and 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.
You can find the first part here
It’s believed that writing was invented independently only four times in our history: in Mesopotamia, in Egypt, in China, and in Mesoamerica. Proto-writing, however, appears far more often and in many more places. The context in which proto-writing arises mirrors that of writing itself- the need for the recording of information by illiterate people, though for more practical purposes than prose or shitposting. By examining the origins of far more recent systems of proto-writing, some even within the past centuries, we can perhaps better understand the context in which writing itself arose millenia in the distant past, the great chasms of time between our era and the dawn of cuneiform reduced to much more manageable interstices.
We’ll begin with looking at the most recently developed of the three systems of proto-writing I’ll be discussing today, the Kaidā glyphs of the most remote and southerly place in Japan- the Yaeyama Islands- far closer to Taiwan than Tokyo. Ryukyu, the southern islands of Japan of which Okinawa is the largest and best known, has only been subject to central Japanese government authority as a prefecture since 1879. Before then the islands, once an independent kingdom, had been beholden to the Satsuma Domain following their invasion and occupation in 1609. The Satsuma administration, based in the city of Kagoshima, was thus met with the ancient question of how to effectively tax its new, distant, and illiterate subjects.
Much like The Conqueror’s survey of England following his successful invasion, the Satsuma Domain surveyed the southern islands for the purpose of determining the amount of tribute to be yielded on an annual basis. Though the Satsuma administration was naturally literate in Japanese, the islanders were virtually all illiterate, and the language spoken by the inhabitants of Yaeyama, at such tremendous remove from the center of Japanese culture and power, differs so significantly from the standard language as to be mutually unintelligible with it (a topic for another time). To solve this issue, the yearly quotas for each household were written on a small wooden board called an itafuda or hansatsu. This information was conveyed to the islanders using a system of proto-writing known as Kaidā glyphs- taken from the word kariya, a kind of government office.
The corpus of the Kaidā glyphs is largely pictographic- as can be seen in the image above- fish and horses are immediately identifiable, and the different markings on the squares indicate various forms of crops (if I had to guess, perhaps derivations from the character 田, meaning “rice paddy”). More opaque are pictograms indicating quantities and weights or those signifying names of places or households, which comprise the entirety of the repertoire beyond the numerals, which, as on the nearby island of Okinawa, appear to have been adapted from the Chinese Suzhou numerals, perfectly likely considering that Chinese merchants had visited Ryukyu for centuries and prior to their integration into the Japanese state the islands had long been a tributary of Imperial China.
The cessation of the usage of the glyphs is no mystery whatsoever- with compulsory education, mass literacy obviated the need for their use likely before about 1930- today, they are used nearly exclusively on tourist tchotchkes like t-shirts and coffee mugs. Much less certain is their origin- the Satsuma are recorded as having created “perfected” glyphs for the purposes of taxation in the 19th century, suggesting that these were perhaps adapted from earlier, “unperfected” glyphs. The Yaeyama Islanders record in oral tradition that they were created by an ancestor known as Mase perhaps in the latter half of the 17th century- coinciding with the period after the Satsuma invasion. Whatever their origin, their genesis closely resembles that of Mesopotamian writing- an accounting tool that, were it not obsolesced by written language, could perhaps have developed into a system of writing itself as it did in the fertile crescent thousands of years ago.
Our next system of proto-writing takes us far from the islands of the East China Sea to the interior of the West African country of Ghana. Here we find the Adinkra symbols- signs representing parables, sigils, as well as glyphs for more mundane concepts- carved into dried calabash gourd and stamped onto cloth of the same name most commonly, though also used in jewelry, pottery, and furniture. They were created by the Bono, an Akan-speaking people of western Ghana, of the Kingdom of Gyaman, certainly no later than the end of the 18th century or beginning of the 19th. Bono oral tradition credits their invention to the Gyaman king Nana Kwado Agymang Adinkra, who gave his own name to the symbols. Following the conquest of the Kingdom of Gyaman by the Ashanti, the usage of Adinkra symbols was more widely disseminated, and today they are found throughout Ghana.
While Kaidā glyphs were essentially exclusively pictographic, that is to say glyphs representing tangible, physical objects like eggs, fish, and rice, Adinkra symbols are nearly all logograms- they represent concepts and ideas, like kingship, prayers, and fearlessness. In this way, they are similar to other such “volitional symbology” found in the world- the Chinese double-happiness character, the Icelandic Ægishjálmur, or perhaps even the barnstars of the American Mid-Atlantic states. A variety of concepts are encoded in the Adinkra symbols- wards against jealousy, exhortations to bravery, indication of royal favor, and praise for the virtue of being a faithful confidant. Individually, these symbols can be found carved into wooden stools or printed above doorways, but the primary medium of their expression, and in which we find our oldest surviving example, is in textile.
Adinkra cloth was once the sole prerogative of the royalty and nobility of Gyaman- it was used in ritual clothing, royal regalia, and to line the bed in which the king of Gyaman slept. A glyph bearing the name Musuyidie was printed on a cloth placed beside the king’s bed- every morning when he woke he placed his left foot on it three times to remove curses or other evils. Hung above the doorway lintel was a piece of paper bearing a sign that conveyed a prayer whose English meaning is given as “Oh God, everything which is above, permit my hand to touch it”, which the king would touch before his forehead and breast and reciting thricely. On his pillow was the sign of the Nsoroma, symbolizing an Akan saying- “Like the star- the child of the Supreme Being, I rest with God and do not depend upon myself.”
Such symbolism and usage is perhaps most recognizable to Westerners in the form of a sigil- a word whose meaning is more deeply illustrated via its etymology, being taken from the Latin word for “seal”. This type of proto-writing did not develop into true writing anywhere in the world, as far as we know. Perhaps the encoding of parables and aphorisms into glyphs inhibits the development of such signs into writing whereas a pictographic script would not, but it is altogether certain that the Kingdom of Gyaman had little use for writing as we use it today, and as occurred with the Kaidā glyphs any potential further development was made unnecessary by the imposition of written language from an outside power, in this instance the British and the French.
That is not to say, however, that writing never developed from systems used for magical purposes. It very certainly did, and moreover one of the only two independent inventions of writing from which virtually all modern scripts descend originated in this way. Modern Chinese characters descend from the Oracle bone script- so called because of its use in the practice of divination, in which questions were posed to the gods by writing them on bone or turtle shell, heating them, and then interpreting the resulting cracks. This practice is first recorded as having taken place in the Shang dynasty, over three thousand years ago. However, one needn’t look far to discover a form of magical pictographic writing developed closer to our own time.
In the mountains of western Sichuan dwell the Ersu, a Qiangic-speaking people whose origins are poorly understood- perhaps arriving from Tibet in the distant past. Few people speak the Ersu language, around 13,000, and still yet in a locale of great remove from major population centers. The reason that this obscure tongue has caught the attention of academics is due to a very peculiar system of writing developed by the Ersu. Known as Ersu Shaba, this script does not represent the Ersu language, but is used solely by Ersu priests (Shaba) in their religious texts- recited in the practice of divination or the curing of the ill. The restriction of knowledge of this script to the shamanic priests (always male) of a small, remote ethnic group has naturally led to the present situation- likely fewer than ten people are able to read the Ersu Shaba script, and yet today there are many unclear meanings and unanswered questions surrounding its interpretation. As to why this script is regarded as especially peculiar, one need only examine a sample:
The “comic-book style” panels of this writing system are integral to its function- each contains a discrete thought. You might recognize the animals depicted as being those of the Chinese zodiac- this is due to each day of the Chinese lunar calendar being represented by one of the same twelve animals used in the more familiar yearly zodiac known outside of China. Thus, we can recognize this text as representing a sort of calendar. The other elements in the squares have myriad meanings, but it is not simply the presence of these elements that conveys meaning, but their position within the square- for example, the left represents the morning and the right the evening- as well as the color- red corresponds to the element of fire, and, I believe, the moon and star sign present in the second square from the left on the middle row signifies that the day will be bright. Were this sign black instead of white however, it would carry the meaning of “dim.”
Much like the Ersu themselves, the origins of this script are poorly understood. It is perhaps related to the Dongba symbols of the Naxi- used for a similar religious purpose- and has been in use for maybe between five hundred and one thousand years. Though extremely unlikely that this system will evolve into one capable of rendering the Ersu language (that is, true writing), we can learn from the context of its use how the need to record important information relating to astrology, divination, and magic can serve as the impetus toward the development of writing just as easily as a system of account.
The ubiquity of writing around us has blinded us to its existence just as fish aren’t cognizant of the water in which they swim. Few people consider how one of the most important tools developed by man, perhaps the most important beyond pointed sticks and fire, came into being, and fewer still ask the question of why. I hope this series has given you the smallest insight into these questions, and if not I’d be more than content to know it’s at least piqued your interest. My heartfelt thanks to the good herbalist for allowing me the use of his platform, and to you, reader, for lending an ear- or eye, in the context of our topic and medium.