Pam Weintraub: The roots of writing lie in hopes and dreams, not in accounting: "In the four wellsprings of writing, it never (as far as we know) sprang forth as fully phonographic but evolved to become that–there’s usually some kind of proto-writing, and some kind of proto-proto-writing...

...I like to think of writing as a layered invention.... A durable mark on a surface. Humans have been doing this for at least 100,000 years.... Then... let’s make this mark different... and assign it a meaning.... Then there’s the linguistic one: let’s realise that a sound, a syllable and a word are all things in the world that can be assigned a graphic symbol. This invention depends on the previous ones, and itself is made of innovations, realisations, solutions and hacks. Then comes the functional invention: let’s use this set of symbols to write a list of captives’ names, or a contract about feeding workers, or a letter to a distant garrison commander. All these moves belong to an alchemy of life that makes things go boom.... Early writing in Mesopotamia, for instance, had no overtly political function.... Instead, for the first 300-400 years of early cuneiform texts in the region (from about 3300-2900 BCE)... a bookkeeping function for managing temple-factories of the day....

Tokens showed up in Neolithic archaeological sites from 8000 BCE.... Schmandt-Besserat... realised... they were markers for objects: one cone per unit of grain, one diamond per unit of honey.... Tokens... were stored in groups... sealing them into hollow clay balls... obvious drawback that the contents of a sealed envelope can’t be checked, early accountants pressed the tokens into the soft, wet surface of the envelope. By the fourth millennium, scribes realised that the impressed signs made the envelopes redundant....

Then one more step of abstraction completed the journey: create written signs that capture speech-sounds and word-meanings.... Early states functioned without writing for nearly 3,000 years before the invention of cuneiform because they had the token system for counting. And tokens didn’t need the... state to develop.... Counting that precedes complex economic organisation as well as phonetic writing that precedes political functions...


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