The invention of writing made it not only easier to pass on knowledge from one place to another, but also from one generation to the next. Important events and historical records could be written down and made available to future historians. Thus, the latter consider the invention of writing to be the mark of our passage from prehistory to history!
In prehistoric times, people told about their lives by painting pictures on the walls of caves. These cave paintings were pictographs, or pictures representing concrete things like animals. Over time, populations grew, towns developed, and society became more organized. By around 3000 BC, the people of Mesopotamia, a region in the Middle East (today’s Iraq), found themselves in need of an effective way to communicate with one another and keep track of their goods. They invented writing.
Mesopotamian writing was made up of a series of small pictographs. These were engraved on soft clay tablets with a sharpened reed. In order to speed up the writing process, the symbols became simpler and more abstract. The pictographs were slowly transformed into ideograms, which are signs that may represent ideas as well as real objects. Mesopotamian writing eventually came to include almost 2,000 different ideograms, each one representing a word!
Writing with ideograms was difficult to learn and to memorize because there were thousands of different symbols. To overcome this difficulty, the Phoenicians (the people who lived on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea) invented the first alphabet around 1300 BC. All the different sounds that made up their language were, from then on, represented by just 22 phonograms, or symbols that represent sounds. The Phoenician alphabet was later improved upon, first by the Greeks and then by the Romans. The Roman alphabet, which has 26 letters, is the most common alphabet used in the world today.
The earliest writings were engraved on clay tablets or carved in rock or wood. The Egyptians were the first to write on a soft, flexible surface. The stems of Egyptian papyrus plants were cut into strips that were intertwined and pressed together to form sheets. Around the year 100 AD, the Chinese invented paper made from wood pulp. It is the same material we continue to write on today.