How Writing Was Invented

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  • 0:08 Why Write?
  • 1:25 Cuneiform
  • 3:06 Hieroglyphs
  • 4:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

Writing was literally an invention that not only changed history, but made its study possible. The Egyptians and the Mesopotamians were two of the first civilizations to invent writing. Learn how and why in this lesson!

Why Write?

Imagine that you are a shepherd and it is time to pay your taxes. You don't have any money because as a shepherd, you live out in the hills and don't go to the market enough to actually use it. Luckily, the local ruler understands, and says you can pay your taxes in sheep. The taxman comes around and takes a number of your sheep. Probably a few more than you'd prefer. In any event, how do you prove that you've paid your taxes so that the next taxman can't come along and take more?

Of course, you could receive a small trinket, maybe a clay figure of a sheep, to prove that you paid your taxes. But, what about the taxman? How can he be sure that he won't forget that he's already collected from you? If only there were some way of remembering this sort of thing for the future.

Luckily for us, we don't have to worry about remembering everything today because more than 4,000 years ago, someone in what is now Mesopotamia had a genius idea. We don't know who this person was, but the idea was one of the most revolutionary in history. In fact, you could even say that it made history possible, as history is the study of the written past.


Like all great inventions, writing developed out of necessity, and while the example of the shepherd and the taxman was made up, it is probably pretty close to what really happened. Someone leaned down, grabbed a piece of mud clay, flattened it in his palm, and drew something using a stick. They then found that it was much faster to make wedges in the clay rather than attempt to draw something. Eventually these wedge-drawings using the end of a stick onto clay tablets would be standardized into cuneiform.

Soon, the ability to use a standard set of clay wedge-drawings, which is what cuneiform was, became a very valuable skill, with only the richest and most powerful people in Mesopotamia able to do this. It wasn't as easy as it sounds, though. Just as you would draw a sheep differently from me, this meant that there were soon hundreds of cuneiform signs.

Also, people ran into difficulties when trying to draw an idea. Sure, you can draw a sheep, or even the idea of running, but how do you draw someone's name? This meant that special signs had to be invented for those ideas, which meant that only a small number of people had access to the knowledge to draw them. These scribes, or people who knew how to write, soon got very rich.

Many cultures within Mesopotamia adopted cuneiform, but since so few spoke the same language, that meant that each language soon adopted its own way of using the wedges to write. Because of this, historians who read cuneiform today have to be able to recognize several different languages, even if they only read one.

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