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The Invention of Writing

THE INVENTION OF WRITING

It is not known precisely when or where Homo sapiens, the biological species of conscious, thinking creatures, emerged. As the search for our prehistoric origins continues, the early innovations of our ancestors have been pushed back further in time. It is believed that we evolved from a species that lived in the southern part of Africa. These early hominids ventured out onto the grassy plains and into caves as the forests in that part of the world slowly disappeared. In the tall grass, the hominids began to stand erect. Perhaps this adaptation was a result of the need to watch for predators, to help discourage enemies by increasing the hominids’ apparent size, or to hold branches as weapons.

In any event, the hand developed an ability to carry food and hold objects. Found near Lake Turkana in Kenya, a nearly three-million-year old stone that had been sharpened into an implement proves the thoughtful and deliberate development of a technology-a tool. Early shaped stones may have been used to dig for roots or to cut away flesh from dead animals for food. While we can only speculate about the use of early tools, we know that they mark a major step in the human species’ immense journey from primitive origins toward a civilized state.

A number of quantum leaps provided the capacity to organize a community and gain some measure of control over human destiny. Speech-the ability to make sounds in order to communicate was an early skill developed by the species on the long evolutionary trail from its archaic beginnings. Writing is the visual counterpart of speech. Marks, symbols, pictures, or letters drawn or written upon a surface or substrate became a graphic counterpart of the spoken word or unspoken thought. The limitations of speech include the fallibility of human memory and an immediacy of expression that cannot transcend time and place. Until the electronic age, spoken words vanished without a trace, while written words remained. The invention of writing brought people the luster of civiLization and made it possible to preserve hard-won knowledge, experiences, and thoughts.

The development of writing and visible language had its earliest origins in simple pictures, for a close connection exists between the drawing of pictures and the marking of writing. Both are natural ways of communicating ideas, and early people used pictures as an elementary way to record and transmit information.

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