Friday, July 17

The Dawn of Writing.

(Much needed proof-reading to happen soon - I promise! - I just wrote this in one big burst without correcting anything.)

To many scholars' surprise, but not to mine, there has been a shift in the paradigm of the geographic location of the first written language on earth. You probably were taught, as I was, that the Sumerians developed the first written script in what is today modern Iraq, in the region known as "the fertile crescent." This writing was known as cuneiform and consisted of little more than pre-formed brands shaped into patterns of dots pressed into mud-brick and then laid out to dry and harden. It was used at first solely for record keeping, mostly of public inventory stocks and later in more sophisticated transaction such as bartering, taxation, and finally even adapted to recording non-numerical information such as the recipes for ale and bread.

But it was not the first writing after all. As I've believed nearly my whole life, and remember hypothesizing to my teachers even in grammar school, certainly in junior high, it is now almost universally recognized and confirmed that a much older system of writing existed in - you guessed it - Ancient Egypt. At the time the Sumerians were stamping dots into mud, the Egyptians already had developed phonetic hieroglyphs, a simpler version than what was to come, but much more sophisticated than anything existing anywhere else in the world both technologically and linguistically. For these hieroglyphs, which would grow more elaborate and standardized over the millennia but not change in their substance, were carved into square ivory tags, much as hieroglyphs were later to be carved in stone. And they did not simply represent a crude numbering system. Even the oldest of these ivory tags so far discovered contains the written form of a spoken language, complete with syllable-based words and word-based phrases. These tags predate the earliest writing in Sumeria by hundreds if not a thousand years.

One then wonders: Where did this sophisticated form of writing, and of carving, come from? Surely it didn't simply spring up in this already complex system fully formed at the time to which it is dated? It must have had a long development of its own. Without writing a book about the subject here, I believe for many reasons (and not due to "alternative history" documentaries or books, many of them ludicrous and mystical, but to sound, rational thought I've formed independently when attempting to synthesize all I know about Egypt, gathered from many, many sources over a short lifetime), that Egyptian culture - its mythology, its writing, its stonework, its political schemes, and so on - is much older than most people, even archaeologists and indeed and ironically Egyptologists, have ever believed.

To build on the scale they did, to show the sophistication already present in their intricately carved pots, knives, in their stonework, in their creation stories and their entire cosmology, to organize their societies stratigraphically and show the kind of societal stability they did, to indeed have developed the sophistication of writing and thus (according to linguists like Stephen Pinker), the sophistication of language and ultimately thought that they must have had, they must inevitably have much, much deeper roots than is even now thought to be the case. If you don't believe this - if you can't see this from a holistic view of what knowledge and artifacts we have of that culture in its earliest forms currently known - then you are forced to adopt some other even more radical theory, such as alien visitation or some other form of mysticism. Or that they were instructed by Atlanteans or another earthly culture, which only begs the question and sets one upon the search for an equally ancient, sophisticated peoples not know as "Egyptians" but other than that possessing all the antiquity and mystery. In other words, you've solved nothing, you've only shifted the problem somewhere else. And nowhere else are any older, more sophisticated civilizations to be found, at least in our present understanding. It's always possible something completely unknown could "spring up" somewhere surprising, especially as powerful techniques such as ground-penetrating radar and satellite imagery have come to be used by archaeologists in recent decades. Almost certainly antiquity has not given up all her secrets, and digging these up will be as fruitful an enterprise in the coming century as it was in the previous, if not more so.

So where and how do I think Ancient Egyptians culture developed, since it presently appears nearly full-formed in situ along the Nile, as though by magic or divine or extraterrestrial deliverance? I think that further excavations far to the west of the Nile river valley, in places like Naptha Playa and other paleolithic and neolithic sites, where incidentally calendrical stone circles much akin to Stonehenge (though much older) and giant chunks of quarried and intricately worked stone (stone which is not native to the sites but has been brought from a far distance, somehow), will yield the original home of the Egyptian people, and will show the beginnings of that culture in a rational, believable way which will solve many current mysteries once and for all. For I believe (as do an increasing number of scholars) that the culture we call "Egyptian" did not spring up along the Nile one day, nor did it even form in what is today's political state of Egypt, but that it consisted originally of wandering nomads, as existed all over at that period immediately after the last Ice Age, in the then-fertile Sahara with all its seasonal lakes and patches of forest and grasslands, and progressed in fits and starts in a general eastward migration to its more famous eventual site of permanent settlement. This migration was spurred on by well-documented climate change that dried out the Sahara over thousands of years, and would thus have periodically dried up lakes as the sands encroached and uprooted large communities, who would have then had to travel east some distance until another seeming haven of life was found, which may then have served as a new home for decades or centuries until the process repeated.

All along the way there should be remnants of settlements, of tools and bones and the other implements of a settles society as opposed to a strictly nomadic one. I believe these will be found someday under all that sand, and that the pre-history of Egypt will finally be explained without recourse to any magic and without simply ignoring the great mystery of the Nile culture's sudden ascendancy, or writing it off to the exquisite treasure that the Nile represents, as do most Egyptologists who even bother with the question. It's as though most researchers interested in Egypt content themselves with tiny changes in building techniques, or which gods fell in and out of favor, or where certain tombs may lie, when there is a huge pink elephant standing in the middle of the room which they all pretend not to notice as they go about sieving the sands and poring over the minute bits of evidence for some trivial mystery they happen to 'specialize' in. In all of science over-specialization is in danger of forever obfuscating the big picture, and the same is true of Egypt. So many otherwise intelligent people wander into the field with blinders on, assuming the general framework of Egyptian history is well-understood, and content to focus on their own tiny field of interest, and very few ever stand back and look at the whole subject, including the pink elephant, and think to themselves (much less voice) the obvious question: Where and how the hell did all of this just start up one day or year or decade, with no millennia-long buildup to be seen? Why is that Ancient Egypt seems to emerge fully formed from the desert as if by magic, greatest at or near its origin, and then undergoes a long period of decline for the next three thousand years? It's not supposed to work that way!

My only rational idea is to suppose that the other side of this peak, the multi-thousand year buildup to it, did indeed occur, and occur naturally and without the help of ET, thank you, and that the evidence for it is there - only not 'there' as in the Nile River valley, but 'there' out to the west, strewn along ancient routes, the near whole of it now buried by the sands. At Naptha Playa (qv), a temple to the paternal falcon-god Horus has recently been unearthed, for Christ's sake. If that doesn't point the way west, then I dunno what does.

We shall see in the decades or centuries to come that the culture which would end up settling for good in Egypt is indeed much more ancient than any other culture on earth, and by a long ways; that it had developed writing thousands of years sooner than anywhere else, that it had been forced to learn to carve stone due to the relative scarcity of wood, and to do it with copper and bronze in highly innovative ways due to the peculiar inability to produce iron tools (one area in which Egypt always lagged, even the comfortably familiar Nile-based culture we now study in our textbooks), that they understood geometry, astronomy (possibly even the phenomenon of axial precession), and probably much more besides that will surprise and shock all the experts when the discoveries occur. We may well also discover more ancient roots for other cultures around the world, find evidence of heretofore-unknown cultures that rose and vanished in long-forgotten eras, and probably evidence that the New World was discovered not once, twice, or three times (by the Siberians, Vikings, and Columbus), but many more times. Just as the feat the ancient Polynesians accomplished in populating the tiny islands and archipelagos dotting the Pacific once completely baffled Europeans, I think we will see that ancient peoples from a number of cultures had naval and astronomical knowledge we don't currently credit them with and that the New World was discovered over and over again, and that its pre-European population was very heterogeneous nonetheless. This would among many other things explain why South American seems to have been inhabited by humans before North America ever was.

All in all, the hubris of the science of any given time in history has always astounded me. Every era thinks they have all the answers, and that previous eras were ignorant and backward. Our present era seems to me to have learned nothing in looking at history, and to exhibit this same hubris. We recognize we don't know it all but we think we have the basic framework solidly in place, and are now just working to fill in fairly trivial details in the puzzle. It's like physics at the end of the nineteenth century, which was convinced it had just about wrapped up the subject and that beyond a few minor puzzles yet to be worked out, Newton's mechanistic model of the universe stood in supreme triumph and little more was left to do but to "fill in the holes." Those holes and 'minor puzzles' happened to contain enough mystery that in the 20th century, Newton's concepts would be shattered by a new understanding: The twin-towered framework of Relativity and Quantum Theory. Something akin to this seems to be in the offing in archaeology and anthropology (physical and cultural) as well, especially as mentioned with the recent advent of powerful new tools (computers and new mapping and imaging technologies), which represent the first real advance of picks and shovels in quite a long time. To think we really know anything in these fields for certain at this pivotal point of change seems quite silly to me.

To restate the beginning of this post, though: Egyptians, not Sumerians, are now recognized as having the oldest written language ever discovered. By a lot. And if my hunches are correct, by the time we really understand that language system and how it developed, the idea of writing starting anywhere near the Fertile Crescent will be a distant memory, something that children will learn was once believed (to their amusement, surely) when archaeology was still in its infancy.


empath said...

very interesting - how little we know, really, but assume so much!! History is a bunch of guesses based on whatever evidence we have at the moment. We can't possibly ever KNOW what happened that long ago, but for those "explorers of the past", it's a fun journey to find clues to unlock it's mysteries.

Metamatician said...

Well said!

I think the fun is all in the finding, don't you?

Once something is "known," if that's ever really possible in something as uncertain as history, it becomes a little less interesting.

Still fun to read about, and be able to tell others about, but nothing like the thrill of a good mystery, as you point out.

I suppose that's why be both like investigating the past so much. There's a lot to learn, and especially to discover for the first time.

Even in 2009, there STILL is! Tons of it!

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