Writing is a human practice.
Of course it is possible to have a human society without writing, but the impulse to devise a writing system, looked at historically, may have been the rule rather than the exception.
This is counter-intuitive, of course. “Symbolic logic” seems like it ought to be unnatural to humans, especially if we are thinking of humans as basically advanced animals, rather than as embodied spirits. But if we think of mind as primary, everything changes. It’s telling that reading and writing are one of the learning channels that can come naturally to people, in addition to the visual, the audio, and the kinesthetic. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Welcome to the third post taken from Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age by Richard Rudgley. Call this the writing edition. This post hits the highlights of Rudgley’s chapters 4 and 5, pages 58 through 85.
Nah, Ancient People Didn’t Write, They were Barbarians!
The idea of writing as an exception in human history has become dogma:
The proposition that Ice Age reindeer hunters invented writing fifteen thousand years ago or more is utterly inadmissible and unthinkable. All the data that archaeologists have amassed during the last one hundred years reinforce the assumption that Sumerians and Egyptians invented true writing during the second half of the fourth millennium. The Palaeolithic-Mesolithic-Neolithic progression to civilisation is almost as fundamental an article of contemporary scientific faith as heliocentrism. Writing is the diagnostic trait … of civilisation. Writing, says I.J. Gelb, ‘distinguishes civilised man from barbarian.’ If the Ice-Age inhabitants of France and Spain invented writing thousands of years before civilisation arose in the Near East, then our most cherished beliefs about the nature of society and the course of human development would be demolished.Allan Forbes and Thomas Crowder, quoted in Rudgley, p. 75
Of course, the demolishing of our most cherished beliefs about the course of human development is exactly what, Rudgley is arguing, is going to have to happen.
In the last few chapters I have selected only a small number of the complex sign systems that have been preserved from prehistoric times. My concentration on the Near East and more particularly on Europe should not be taken to imply that such systems did not exist elsewhere in the prehistoric world. Far from it; investigations of numerous collections of signs are being undertaken in places as far afield as the Arabian peninsula, China and Australia. Millions of prehistoric signs across the continents have already been recorded, and more and more are being discovered all the time. … It no longer seems sufficient to retain a simplistic evolutionary sequence of events leading up to the Sumerian [writing] breakthrough some 5,000 years ago.Rudgley, p. 81
Let’s look at these complex sign systems that Rudgley has mentioned.
The Vinca Signs
I was an adult before I ever heard the phrase “Old Europe.” I was doing research for a planned book, and I was surprised to learn that in southeast Europe (between the Balkans and the Black Sea), as early as 4,000 or 5,000 BC, there were not only cities but a writing system (undeciphered) known as the Vinca signs. It turns out that these cities and this writing system were probably part of a culture that obtained over much of Europe before the coming of the Indo-Europeans, which is called Old Europe. This is the culture that Marija Gimbutas believes was “the civilization of the goddess.”
Just as a reminder, these dates for the Vinca culture are before the very first human cities and writing are supposed to have arisen, in Sumeria in Mesopotamia, about 3,000 BC.
Perhaps I didn’t hear about the Vinca signs in school because they were only discovered in Transylvania 1961. (I was born in 1976, but we all know how long it takes new archaeological findings to get interpreted, integrated into the overall system, and eventually make it into school textbooks.) After being discovered, the signs were assumed to be derived from Mesopotamian cultures such as Sumer and Crete, because it was accepted dogma that writing was first invented in Mesopotamia. Later, the tablets on which the Vinca signs were discovered were carbon-dated and found to be older than the Mesopotamian writing systems. This led to a big disagreement between those who wanted to believe the carbon dates, and those who wanted to believe the more recent dates for Old European archaeological sites, which were then conventional.
Then, in 1969, more, similar signs were discovered on a plaque in Bulgaria and dated to be 6,000 – 7,000 years old. By this time, archaeologists were beginning to accept the carbon dating of these Old European sites. But since they still did not want to admit that writing might have been invented before Sumer, most of them decided “[the signs] could not be real writing and their apparent resemblance was simply coincidental.” (Rudgley p. 63)
An archaeologist named Winn analyzed the Vinca signs and while he is not willing to go further than calling them “pre-writing,” he concludes that they are “conventionalised and standardised, and that they represent a corpus of signs known and used over a wide area for several centuries.” (Rudgley 66)
Meanwhile, Marija Gimbutas and also Harald Haarmann of the University of Helsinki both feel the Vinca signs are true writing and that they developed out of religious or magical signs, not out of economic tallies like the Sumerian alphabet.
Haarmann notes that there a number of striking parallels between the various strands of the pre-Indo-European cultural fabric – especially those related to religious symbolism and mythology. Among these common features is the use of the bull and the snake as important religious symbols. In the case of the snake it is a form of the goddess intimately intertwined with the bird goddess motif in both Old European and later Cretan iconography. The bee and the butterfly are also recurrent divine attributes, and the butterfly is represented by … the double ax. Haarmann sees the goddess mythology of Old Europe echoed in these motifs that also feature prominently in the ancient civilisation of Crete. He then traces the links between the Old European script – as found in the Vinca culture – and later systems of writing, particularly those of Crete.Rudgley, pp. 68 – 69
Ice Age Signs
There are quite a number of symbols that appear on artifacts or are associated with paintings from the Neolithic and even the Palaeolithic period. These include crosses, spirals, dots, “lozenges” (ovals), and the zigzag, which is very common and seems to have been used to represent water. (By the way, note the zigzags among the Kachina Bridge petroglyphs.) “The discovery in the early 1970s of a bone fragment from the Mousterian site of Bacho Kiro in Bulgaria suggests that the use of the signs may date back to the time of the Neanderthals. This fragment of bone was engraved with the zigzag motif …” and apparently on purpose, not accidentally in the course of doing some other repetitive task. (Rudgley 73)
“The single V and the chevron (an inverted V) are among the most common of the recurrent motifs in the Stone Age.” (Rudgley p. 74) Gimbutas, of course, interprets the V as a symbol for the female genitals and/or Bird Goddess, but it could be just … you know … a symbol.
Archaeologist André Leroi-Gourhan has interpreted the many signs found at various Palaeolithic cave art sites not as a form of hunting magic (contra previous interpretations), but as a symbolic system. “Leroi-Gourhan admitted to us shortly before his death, ‘At Lascaux I really believed they had come very close to an alphabet.’” (Rudgley p. 77)
But Can You Prove It’s Writing?
Every time some symbols are discovered that are so ancient they strain belief, anyone who doesn’t want to accept them as writing can easily go in to a number of calisthenic moves to cast doubt on this. If the item the signs are found on is in poor condition, they can question whether the marks were even intentional. Perhaps they were accidental scratches, the product of some other activity. If the marks are undeniably made by people, they can be dismissed as doodles. The Vinca signs, when first found, were speculated to have been copied randomly from Mediterranean signs by people who believed these things had mysterious power, but did not understand their meaning. Rudgley also notes that the Old European signs have been interpreted as purely magic symbols, as if a magical intent were to make them non-writing.
In short, any time we are presented with a complex system, there are always a million ways to get out of attributing it to a mind. This is doubly true if we aren’t able to interpret its meaning, but you will even see people do this with messages that they ought to be able to understand. Of course, it can also work the other way, where people see meaning in complex patterns where it wasn’t intended. Often what it comes down to is whether we want there to be a meaning there. Do we, or do we not, want to be in contact with another mind? If for whatever reason we don’t, we can always find a logical way to avoid that contact.
So in the case of apparent writing systems that we haven’t cracked and probably never will, our attitude towards them is going to depend heavily on what we believe about ancient people’s minds. Were they basically like ours, or were they different, animal? We will see more writing systems if we are expecting that they came from people. If we are not expecting to encounter people, then nothing is going to convince us that these are writing systems.
Was Adam a Writer?
My mind was blown, while taking an Old Testament Backgrounds course years ago, when I read an essay that asserted that Adam was able to write and in fact had left a written record for his descendants.
This idea seems completely loony on the face of it … until you realize that the only reason it seems loony is that we are assuming that writing is a recent, unnatural development, the product of tens of millennia of human cultural evolution, and not a characteristic human activity that is, so to speak, wired in.
The essay interpreted the early chapters of Genesis in this way. There will be a short historical record, followed by the phrase “the book of [name],” indicating that the passage immediately preceding was by that author.
|Genesis 1:1 – 4:26||Creation (in poetry), fall, Cain and Abel, some of Cain’s descendants, Seth||Gen. 5:1 “the book of Adam”|
|Gen. 5:1b – 6:8||Recap of creation of Adam, Seth’s descendants up to Noah and his sons, Nephilim, God’s resolve to wipe out mankind, God’s favor on Noah||Gen. 6:9a “the book of Noah”|
|Gen. 6:9b – 11:9||Building of the ark, the Flood, emerging from the ark, the Table of Nations, the Tower of Babel||Gen. 11:10 “the book of Shem”|
|Gen. 11: 10b – 11:26||Genealogy from Shem to Terah and his son Abram||Gen. 11:27 “the book of Terah”|
|Gen. 11:27b – 25:18||Terah moves his family to Haran, Terah dies, a whole bunch of stuff happens to Abram, death of Sarah, Isaac finds a wife, Abraham dies, genealogy of the Ishmaelites||Gen. 25:19 “the book of Abraham’s son Isaac”|
|Gen. 25:19b – 37:1||Jacob’s entire life, death of Isaac, genealogy of Esau||Gen. 37:2 “the book of Jacob”|
I realize this might be a lot to accept. It’s just food for thought. It does explain why it says “the book of _________” (or, in my NIV, “this is the account of __________”), after the bulk of that person’s story.
Get it? Get it?
(By the way … for those wondering about the title of this post … prostitution is referred to as “the world’s oldest profession.” Erma Bombeck, mother and humorist, has published a book hilariously titled Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession. The title of this post references those two, because the post is about the fact that writing is very, very old. I don’t mean to imply that a writer’s life has any necessary connection to the other two professions, although of course this does invite all kinds of clever remarks.)