The Story Of... Writing
One of the most important inventions in human history was
undoubtedly the development of writing. Life without this innovation
would be unthinkable today.
Emerging independently in just a handful of places around the world,
writing comprehensively transformed early agricultural societies.
A technology which was invented primarily to record accounts rapidly
exploded into a means of informing, recording and expressing all of
the political, social, cultural, historical, and most intriguingly,
private, thoughts and actions of all walks of society.
recognized as the earliest writing in human history
Writing is believed to have first evolved around 5,000 years ago,
in a region of the Fertile Crescent called Sumer. An elaborate system
of symbols known as cuneiform was developed to permanently record
official accounts on clay tablets — but it didn't take long for cuneiform
to be used for political and historical events as well — even legends,
such as the fabled story of Gilgamesh, the oldest written story in
At the same time, the native peoples of Central America were experimenting
with their own unique form of symbolic representation, culminating
in the written hieroglyphs of the Mayan civilisation of Southern Mexico.
And up to 4,000 years ago, the people of China had developed the third
independent system of writing in history, crafting their own complex
system of symbols and characters.
From these three founder systems evolved all of the complex alphabets,
languages and writing systems in the world. Semitic alphabets, evolved
from Sumerian, dominate the so-called Indo-European language family.
Chinese has shaped the languages of south-east Asia.
The one writing system that seemed to go nowhere was, tragically,
the Central American language of the Maya. Why? Because geography
had conspired to keep the Maya isolated from their neighbors. There
were few trade networks to carry new technologies beyond the Mexican
plateau — particularly south, through the impassable isthmus of Panama.
There weren't even any load-bearing mammals to transport humans across
such trade networks, had they existed. The people of the Americas
communicated only sporadically, from shore to shore — which meant
there was never the consistency of communication to necessitate using
the written word. So Mayan symbols remained local only to central
America — seized upon and largely destroyed when Europeans arrived.
In each of these three cases, writing evolved as a useful by-product
of a complex, economically specialized, politically-stratified society,
built on agricultural surplus. While such cultures evolved all over
the world, only Eurasia had the right conditions to trigger the next
great evolutionary step. Because, almost as significant as the invention
of writing itself, was the invention of printing.
Developed in central Europe in the mid-fifteenth century, from metal
and ink technologies which had evolved across Eurasia, movable type
allowed the rapid dissemination of multiple copies of any written
work. Printed books became bestsellers in a Europe undergoing enormous
social change. Middle class artisans and landowners from independent
mercantile towns were increasingly economically and politically powerful
— and increasingly literate, thanks to the boom in universities.
The printed word capitalized on this social transformation.
So what does this mean for the story of Guns, Germs, and Steel?
Writing — and printing — acted as an additional agent of conquest
for the Europeans. Thanks to printed accounts, Pizarro and his conquistadors
read about successful tactics employed by their predecessors elsewhere
in the New World. In particular, they pored over Hernan Cortes' best-selling
account of the conquest of the Aztec Empire, just 10 years before.
Printing gave Europeans access to a wealth of historical, cultural
and military knowledge from previous eras, which the Inca — a non-literate
society — could never have had.
||Inca Emperor Atahualpa had never seen writing
The Inca Emperor had never seen a book before he met Pizarro. When
presented with a copy of the Bible, he tried to listen to it, smell
it, shake it — the idea of reading was simply incomprehensible
to him. In the heat of the moment, this reaction caused dreadful
offense and triggered the Spaniards' brutal attack on the people
of Cajamarca. But in the long term, what this cultural misunderstanding
represented was the chronic isolation of the Inca Empire. Their
geographic neighbors, the Maya, had developed crude forms of writing,
but these and other inventions had never spread south to the Andes.
Political, social, and military organization inside the Inca Empire
was checked by the limitations of human memory.
Throughout human history whenever literate societies clashed with
non-literate societies, the victors were usually the ones capable
of later recording their great achievements for posterity. To the
victor goes the recording of history.
Find out more about technology go to the Story of... Steel.