A history of
Who invented the first systems
What did they look like?
How have they changed over
What came first?
Long, long before writing, humans were talking to
each other and for thousands of years, ideas and
information were passed down through the spoken
word and story-telling.
Simple drawings of animals have been found
carved or painted onto cave walls that are over
30,000 years old! But the real purpose of these
drawings simply isn’t known.
It was much later that real systems of writing were
created. Writing seems to have been invented in
different parts of the world at more or less the same
Some early cave art
LEFT: A cave
engraving of an
RIGHT: Cave painting from
France, possibly as old as
How many sheep..?
Writing as inventory
The earliest writing seems to have been to keep a
record of property - how many animals you had,
how much land or how many measures of grain your
neighbours owed you.
‘Counting tokens’ made of clay were used for this
purpose to trade around 6,000 years ago.
For example, a token with a shape of a coin and with
a cross carved on it indicated a sheep; a coneshaped token meant a measure of corn, an eggshaped indicated a flask of oil, etc. For 20 sheep,
people needed to use 20 sheep tokens.
Clay trading tokens
Later, these tokens became smaller, more like
today’s coins, and the had a symbol on them to
show which animal or item they represented.
Number systems developed so that a single coin
could represent 10 or 20 of that object.
1. Earliest writing – In
Historians agree that one
of the first groups of
people to start real writing
– and not simply cave
pictures – were the
Sumer was an ancient
civilization based in
modern-day Iraq and part
of the area once known as
‘between rivers’. Can you
see the two rivers on the
The Sumerians & Writing
The Sumerians were the first people to
inhabit the area of Iraq, over 6,000
They made great progress with writing:
They kept records of taxes
They wrote down laws
They also worked out a calendar.
They divided the day into 24 hours
and an hour into 60 minutes.
Sumerian writing Pictographic
years ago as
what they were.
into clay tablets
then baked in
What do you
Eventually, the pictographs were simplified as
straight lines made using a wedge-shaped stick
called a stylus. This early writing is called
Cuneiform. The word comes from the Latin word
you think it
spread across the
East. The straight
easier to make
than curved lines.
How do you think
the circular holes
2. Earliest writing - Egypt
At around the same time as the Egyptians also
developed their own system of writing.
The Egyptians didn’t write on clay tablets but
used papyrus (an ancient paper made from the
papyrus grass plant).
Papyrus paper rolled into scrolls.
Many hieroglyphics are also
pictograms, often drawn
The word ‘hiero’ means ‘sacred’
and ‘glyph’ means ‘carved’ or
‘engraved’. For the Egyptians,
writing was something sacred and
The oldest hieroglyphics are
thought to be about 6,000 years
represented a complete
word but many others
stood for syllables.
They had even more
symbols than the
Sumerians did, as
many as 5,000!
The Egyptians used
their hieroglyphics for
thousands of years.
Writing was timeconsuming and, in
both Egypt and
Mesopotamia, it was
an activity reserved
They were highly
According to experts, the Egyptians didn’t include
vowels when they wrote. This makes it very
difficult for us today to decipher how to
pronounce many words.
Can you imagine our writing without any vowels?
t wld b vry dffclt t rd!
Also, what problems might you have
if your writing system was all made
Can you ‘draw’ every word as a
Which words can you think of that
might be difficult to draw as a
Rebus to the rescue!
To solve the problems of writing all words through pictures,
sometimes hieroglyphics were used to represent a sound
rather than represent the object drawn.
This is known as the rebus principle. It meant complex
words could be written using hieroglyphics.
A rebus is a message spelt out in pictures using the
pronunciation of each picture . For example, what do these
two pictures mean together?
Did you guess it
‘eye’ + ‘deer’ makes…. ‘idea’!
↵ Here are
Can you think
of your own?
• The next big change in writing came nearly two
thousand years later, around 3,000 years ago.
• At that time people called the Phoenicians
lived on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean
Sea, where Israel is today.
• The Phoenicians sailed all over the
Mediterranean buying and selling things. They
needed an easy way to keep records of what
they bought and sold so they invented their
own writing system.
Phoenician Alphabet 2
Unlike in hieroglyphics and Cuneiform, the Phoenicians
realized that there would be far, far fewer symbols in their
writing if they didn’t have a symbol for each syllable but
instead used shorter sounds.
So instead of having one symbol for "al" they one for "a" and
one for "l".
The Phoenician alphabet had just 22 letters -- even fewer
Because the Phoenicians were such great travellers and their
alphabet was so easy to use, many other peoples learned to
use it too.
The Greeks developed their alphabet based on the
Phoenicians', and the Romans based theirs on the Greeks'.
Other ancient writing
CHINA: The oldest traces of Chinese
scripts date from the Shang dynasty
(3,500 years ago). It was made of
pictograms and mainly for religious
MEXICO: Writing appeared around 2,700
years ago. It seems that the Mayas
derived their writing from an older writing,
used by other peoples. The Maya's writing
was syllabic and was used to describe the
most important events in the most
Today.. Pictures still
Pictures for signs are still used to communicate
Now your turn!
In pairs, read the text ‘A history of writing’ and see if you
can answer the following questions in your Unit
1. Why was writing first invented?
2a. In which two places in the world did writing systems
2b. What were these two writing systems like?
3. Who were the Phoenicians and how was their writing
4. Which two alphabets were created after the Phoenician