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The Rise of Civilization and Writing

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The Rise of Civilization and Writing


The phenomenon of writing has been invented independently five separate times in the history of man. While History textbooks almost exclusively talk about the writing of Mesopotamia and Egypt, writing has also been developed in the Indus Valley, China, and Mesoamerica. This strange phenomenon has led many historians and anthropologist to conclude that writing is necessary for a complex society to exist. Nevertheless, there was a society located in the Andean Mountain in present day Peru in which writing was never invented yet it is still consider complex or, in other words, a civilization. This civilization, instead, used a method of record keeping that functioned in place of writing. This suggests that although there is a strong correlation between the development of a civilization and writing, it does not necessarily mean that writing is one of the causative factors in its rise. However, a record keeping system is crucial to a society's evolution towards complexity.

One civilization that developed writing was the Sumerians in Mesopotamia which is located in present day Iraq. The Sumerians impressed wet clay with the end of a reed leaving a wedge-shaped form. This kind of writing on clay is called cuneiform, from the Latin "cuneus", meaning "wedge." Cuneiform owes its origins to the need arising from public economy and administration. With the rise in production of the country, accumulated surplus were sent to the cities. This necessitated a method of keeping account of all the goods coming into the cities as well as of manufactured goods leaving for the country. However before the first tablet was written, the Sumerians used an uncomplicated but inefficient system of recording transactions. It involved enclosing clay tokens signifying certain commodities and their quantities in a round clay object called a bulla. Seals of the individuals involved in the transaction were placed on the outside to validate the even. However to check the honesty of the deliverer, the bulla had to be destroyed to reconcile the goods with the tokens inside thereby destroying the record of the transaction as well. So to preserve the record, they impressed the tokens on the outside of the bulla before sealing them in. As time passed the bulla became the tablet and the impressions of tokens became symbolized by wedge-shaped marks. Eventually these marks came to denote distinct words and syllables of their spoken language. The purposes for writing also evolved. Sumerians wrote literature, philosophy, religion events, and about their every day lives. In fact, the Sumerians were the first to recorded a codified system of law.

Another civilization that developed writing was the Egyptians. They had a similar system to the Sumerians in that both began as a pictographic form of writing. Hieroglyphics were used largely for religious purposes. The ancient Egyptian word for hieroglyphs means "language of the gods" indicating their importance. Priests used hieroglyphs to write down prayers, magical texts, and texts related to life after death and worshiping the gods. Moreover, many Egyptians had autobiographies and directions to the afterlife written in their tombs. Civil officials also used hieroglyphics to record historical events, and to document calculations, such as the depth of the Nile River on a specific day of the year. For everyday practical life, the Egyptian used two forms of cursive writing, first the hieratic and then the demotic. These two type of script were basically an abbreviate word-syllabic script based off of the hieroglyphic form. Little is known about the development of the hieroglyphics for they appeared in such a developed form that anthropologist and archeologists cannot see the full transition.

Writing , for these two civilization as well as the other three civilization where writing was present, served many important purposes. First, it helped to insure the continuity of the continuity of civilization by expediting the flow of information in an increasingly large and stratified society. Secondly, it facilitated administrative activities and enabled the further growth and canalization of the society. Finally, it crystallized and preserved cultural and bureaucratic traditions so that they outlive the hegemony of single rulers or dominant power-bases. However the Andeans in South America developed a highly complex society without a written language. They were very similar to the Egyptians and Sumerians in that they were a sedentary people that invented agriculture, pottery, weaving, metallurgy and domesticated animals. They also had full-time specialization of labor, a class structured society with a well-defined ruling class who held control over a concentration of surplus good and labor which they deployed towards their own ends and monumental "public" works. So how were they able to insure the continuity of their civilization without a tangible record? The answer is that they did in fact have a system of keeping records but it is not in a form that is immediately recognizable least likely decipherable.

The Andeans used a system of knotted cords, called the Quipu, that functioned as mnemonic devices to remember or rather record information. The concept is very similar to writing in that writing records data by using abstract symbols drawn on a surface which serve as mnemonic devices. Through the Quipus, they were able to encrypted detailed records of resources such as items that were need or available in storehouses, taxes owed or collected, census information, the output of mines, and the composition of work forces as well as important historical events.

It is because of the existence of the Quipu that many anthropologist are re-thinking the role of writing in the development of civilization. Instead of thinking in terms of writing, anthropologist are revising their view to a system of record keeping. Writing, after all is a method of recorded keeping in the broadest sense of the word. Therefore, despite the fact that writing has been a major influence in the development of five out of the six civilizations that first appeared on the face of the Earth, writing does not need to be present for a society to progress into complexity

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