When did we start writing?

In The Origin of (almost) Everything, Graham Lawton and his colleagues at New Scientist explain what happened immediately after the Big Bang occurred. “Around 13.8 billion years ago matter, energy, time and space spontaneously sprang from nothing in the event we know as the Big Bang. How did that happen? Or to put it another way: What is the origin of everything? This is the quintessential origin mystery.” The exact day and date have not as yet been pinned down but we now know a great deal that sheds light on that origin mystery and hundreds of others.

Obviously, there were few eyewitnesses to the  Big Bang after it occurred so Lawton and his colleagues heavily depended on what science reveals with regard to what happened when and where…also why. For  example, when did people start writing?

“The earliest true writing capable of recording the full complexity of spoken language emerged in the cities of Sumeria 5,300 years ago. Inscribed on to clay tablets using a blunt reed, cuneiform started as an accounting system to document things like the the beer rations paid to workers — a necessary invention for a society that was growing more complex. Originally consisting of pictures — a jar to represent a beer, say — by around 4,600 years ago the signs had evolved to represent syllables, and so could be used to write down the language. The word for arrow was ti, for example, so the pictogram of an arrow came to represent the syllable ti in words like til, which means ‘life.’ This type of script is called a syllabary; some modern languages including Japanese are written this way.”

Graham Lawton and his colleagues at New Science duly acknowledge, “In the end, we had far too much material to squeeze into a single book…Maybe one day I will write The Origin of (almost) Everything Else.” Let’s all hope so.

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New Scientist, the world’s leading science & technology weekly magazine, was launched in 1956 “for all those men and women who are interested in scientific discovery, and in its industrial, commercial and social consequences”.


Graham Lawton, New Scientist, The Origin of (almost) Everything, Nicholas Brealey


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