Sumer's Protoliterate Period & the Origin of Writing

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  • 0:03 Early Writing
  • 0:39 Beginnings
  • 2:18 Language & Society
  • 3:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the Sumerian development of writing and the important cultural factors that led to its usage, as well as some of the practices in which it was quickly utilized. After, feel free to test yourself on the brief quiz.

Early Writing

When did you learn how to read and write? Perhaps you learned in kindergarten when you were four or five, or maybe your parents managed to teach you a few things a year or two earlier. Most people in the world today have that experience at some point, though there are still many poor areas of the world where literacy rates are unfortunately low. Well, near the end of the fourth millennium B.C., the first humans had that experience. Indeed, even though writing and reading is ubiquitous today, it's only been around for a few thousand years! In this lesson, we'll discuss when and where writing began, its early style, and the way it affected ancient society.


When humanity began taking written notation is not exactly known. Likely, humans beings began keeping written records sometime after complex agricultural communities began to settle sometime between 10000 and 8000 B.C. For the first time in human history, these sedentary communities began stockpiling more food than they could eat in a few days. As they built storehouses and granaries, written notation likely developed as a way to remember how much was stored and where. For example, some of the oldest artifacts that have been found are counting tokens that date some 7000 years ago. Over time, these tokens began to be pressed into soft stone and clay tablets in a rudimentary form of record keeping.

True writing, or the development of symbols to denote words or syllables, did not begin until over 5000 years ago, about 3300 B.C. This occurred first in an area of the world called Mesopotamia. This area, at times referred to as the 'Cradle of Civilization,' is situated in between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is today Iraq. A culture that historians and anthropologists call Sumer was the first to begin writing. Ancient Sumerians' first written characters were pictograms. Pictograms were essentially simplified pictures of the words, sounds, or ideas that the symbols were representing.

Later, this style was pared down to cuneiform. Cuneiform was an even simpler writing style, where a wedge-shaped stylus was used to make impressions upon a clay tablet. In cuneiform, various series of wedges at differing angles, dots, and lines were strung together to form words, sentences, and complex thought.

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