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Ancient Middle East

First writing

A Sumerian scribe records sheep and goats. A Sumerian scribe records sheep and goats. When people began to trade with each other, it became essential to record the details in writing. Writing was invented to fulfil such practical needs, but it was one of the major breakthroughs in history. In fact, history itself could not be recorded until people could write it down. Writing started where civilization began, in the ancient land of Mesopotamia (in modern-day Iraq).

Ancient Sumerian pictograms on a tabletAncient Sumerian pictograms on a tablet

Sumerian pictograms

Writing was invented by the ancient Sumerians in Mesopotamia in about 3300 BC. The earliest writing was a series of marks scratched on to stone tablets, discovered in the city of Uruk. Later, scribes began to write on clay tablets using a reed pen called a stylus. The earliest writing was in picture form. This was very slow because there was a different picture for every word and scribes had to learn more than 2000 symbols, or pictograms.

Pictograms and their later cuneiform symbols Pictograms and their later cuneiform symbols
The first things people wanted to record were lists, say, of the animals owned by a farmer. The symbols that stood for these things were, simply, pictures. The symbol for a bull, for example, was a picture of a bull’s head. The symbol for a fish was a leaping fish.

The earliest Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions yet found date back to 3100 BC. They are carved in stone on what is known as the Narmer Palette. The inscription is believed to tell the story of the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt by King Narmer.

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