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Communications Science

Earliest "Writing" On 60,000-Year-Old Eggshells 214

Posted by kdawson
from the beats-walking-on-them dept.
New Scientist reports on research published in PNAS (abstract here) about what may be the earliest writing yet discovered, on eggshells dated to 60,000 years ago. "Since 1999, Pierre-Jean Texier of the University of Bordeaux, France, and his colleagues have uncovered 270 fragments of shell at the Diepkloof Rock Shelter in the Western Cape, South Africa. They show the same symbols are used over and over again, and the team say there are signs that the symbols evolved over 5,000 years. This long-term repetition is a hallmark of symbolic communication and a sign of modern human thinking, say the team. [Another researcher is quoted:] 'Judging from what we know about the evolution of art all over the world, there may have been many [written language] traditions that were born, lasted for some time, and then vanished. This may be one of them, most probably not the first and certainly not the last.'"
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Earliest "Writing" On 60,000-Year-Old Eggshells

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  • More images (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Concern (819622) * on Thursday March 04, 2010 @11:29AM (#31358250) Journal

    I wish in articles like these they presented more of the source images, and in higher resolution. The small sample they provide is beautiful, but to the layman appears as a kind of meandering, simple decoration. Of course the claims are limited: communication via graphic art is distinct from communication via modern written languages.

    It's interesting to imagine the first lonely human writers at the dawn of written language - how many wrote things only they themselves could understand, before coincidence formed the first community of proto-literate people? How much of this early writing was just the smooth flow of art - abstract or representational - into more concrete meanings relevant to the every day lives even of the illterate?

  • Re:More images (Score:3, Interesting)

    by anss123 (985305) on Thursday March 04, 2010 @11:48AM (#31358468)

    The written form of Chinese is mostly the same across the country, while the spoken language differs; the symbols have nothing to do with the pronunciation, they simply express the concept.

    Does this means that people that can't talk to each other can write instead? Convenient then, no need to learn multiple languages.

  • by lordmetroid (708723) on Thursday March 04, 2010 @11:52AM (#31358510)
    Actually, all research points that they had a lot more spare time, meats of various kinds is a very energy dense food item, grain production requires a whole lot of work for piss porr nutritional values in comparision.
  • Re:More images (Score:3, Interesting)

    by 140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) on Thursday March 04, 2010 @11:57AM (#31358570) Journal

    Does this means that people that can't talk to each other can write instead? Convenient then, no need to learn multiple languages.

    Yes, that is true. Mandarin and cantonese writings will be comprehensible to each other, but not the spoken language. It is not something that is very unusual. China formed into a large empire 2500 years ago and established an enduring bureaucracy. The Mandarins (palace officials) collected data from the vast empire and established common writing systems. But local languages adopted the symbol-meaning map but kept their own pronunciation. Eventually minor dialects died out leaving behind just two large spoken language systems.

  • Re:More images (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Monkeedude1212 (1560403) on Thursday March 04, 2010 @12:00PM (#31358594) Journal

    The written form of Chinese is mostly the same across the country, while the spoken language differs; the symbols have nothing to do with the pronunciation, they simply express the concept.

    Does this means that people that can't talk to each other can write instead? Convenient then, no need to learn multiple languages.

    Yes - actually, funny anecdotal story about things like that. A friend of mine went and travelled the world and he said one of the most interesting quirks about China is that everyone knows the symbols, but not the words.

    So - when you are in lets say Germany, and you are looking for a Coffee shop, and you ask the person next to you - and they speak German not English, but you don't know the German word for Coffee. You might use words like Café, and so on and so forth, speaking to the person using different words to get your meaning across.

    In China, whenever someone comes across a word they don't know (and it happens quite frequently) - they hold out their hand, and use the index finger of their opposite hand to draw out the symbol of the word you are looking for. This works so well because their symbols mean the words instead of the sounds.

  • by peter303 (12292) on Thursday March 04, 2010 @12:07PM (#31358670)
    By an ancient Einstein, I mean someone who develops as significant piece of technology in a single generation. Like fossils in evolutions, this could be so fast that it was not saved in the archeologic record. Two Examples:
    Egyptian pyramids went for stacked sand-walled mastabas to full-blown monsters in less than a century. This was attributed to creativity of Imhotep. (also credited with inventing columns in architecture).

    The idea of purely phonetic alphabet seen to arise instantly in the archeological record in Ugarit 3400 years ago. It was adapted to Phonecia, Greece, Isreal, Rome etc. Most previous writing systems had combination of pure ideographs and phonetic syllables- ideographs borrowed because they sound like other works (like people do in charades).
  • Re:More images (Score:3, Interesting)

    by AthanasiusKircher (1333179) on Thursday March 04, 2010 @01:01PM (#31359492)

    The small sample they provide is beautiful, but to the layman appears as a kind of meandering, simple decoration.

    Indeed. Without some further explanation, the images look like these could simply be something like decorated eggs [wikipedia.org]. Lots of cultures have done it over many millennia, and the patterns you often see are quite complex. My grandmother used to make a Russian/Ukrainian form of them, and she clearly "evolved" patterns of lines by varying those made by her mother and other women in her community.

    I'm not saying the researchers don't know what they're talking about. Just from the description of "repetitive patterns" and the images, it's hard to see the difference between language and decoration in this case.

  • by K. S. Kyosuke (729550) on Thursday March 04, 2010 @02:14PM (#31360464)

    Doubt that. Hunting take much time and energy and is an all year round activity - you can't store it unless you have salt - while grain harvesting take ~3 weeks and can be stored indefinitely as long as you keep it dry.

    You doubt? Don't. Research shows that the transition to neolithic agriculture was accompanied by appearance of nutritional deficiencies, skeletal deformations (quern mill took its toll), severe dental problems and most likely by an increase of work having to be carried out daily from the average of three work hours to twelve work hours (per day).

  • by Mindcontrolled (1388007) on Thursday March 04, 2010 @02:29PM (#31360642)
    I think I have to clarify something here - I am certainly not adhering to any "noble savage" theory here. I completely agree that from our point of view the quality of life and societal structure of hunter-gatherer societies are nothing desirable at all and with your assessment of the relative merits of our society compared to it. What I was arguing was that from the perspective of an early farmer, life has not really improved in the course of the neolithic revolution. I am not saying that there was a golden age we should strive to get back. I am saying that for the early neolithic farmer it might have looked that way, thus giving rise to the golden age myth present in so many cultures.
  • by Unequivocal (155957) on Thursday March 04, 2010 @03:18PM (#31361238)

    Plus plus. The research I've read (disclaimer: grad school drop-out in Anthro) is that farming/agriculture permits higher density living -- more peeps per sq kilometer. It requires more time investment per person to get the same calories, but you can do it on much less land. It also permits more specialization (I make the ploughs, you raise the oxen, he plows the fields) in society due to logistic simplifications (we live close enough to each other to make the exchanges frequently), as well as the inherent monetization created by storable crops (he pays you and me with the barley he grows).

    Your point on nutrition in mono-crop societies is a good one too -- if you live on mostly barley, you might be getting the calories but not the nutrients that a family wandering from place to place eating varied roots, nuts, berries and wild game is getting.

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