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Writing emerged independently in relatively few places around the world. Early on, it was primarily a technology used to record inventories and agricultural accounts. The first evidence of human writing has been discovered in the Fertile Crescent of Sumer, and is at least 5,000 years old. Historians call this Sumerians writing cuneiform. It is an elaborate system of symbols made with a wedge-shaped stylus and pressed into wet clay. Over the centuries, this writing system was adopted and adapted across the Western world. The alphabets like Phoenician, Greek, Cyrillic, Arabic, and even the Roman alphabet we use for writing English all have their distant roots in this ancient Sumerian script.
But the Sumerians weren’t the only people to develop a writing system on their own. Around 4,000 years ago, the people of China developed their own writing system independently of the Sumerian script. Over time this script developed into a complex system of symbols and characters. As with the Sumerians, the Chinese writing system was very influential and spread around Asia as different peoples adopted and adapted the writing system for their own use.
The only other place where historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists believe that writing developed independently is in the Americas. About 2,500 years ago the first writing system in the Americas emerged in what is now southern Mexico. This script used complex pictures, or pictograms, to represent words and ideas. And, as in the other two cases we’ve looked at, this writing system spread around Mesoamerica as other groups adopted and adapted it. Take a look at the different writing systems in the media gallery to learn more.