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Archaeology/Development of writing



I have two questions.

If anatomically modern human beings existed from about 100,000 years ago(I am correct) why did writing develop just 5000 years ago? Shouldnt it be rational that writing should have developed far before? They could make sails at 60000 years ago and not writing?

The evidence from 5000 years ago is only the oldest preserved and recognized writing.  It is preserved because it was written on stone and clay.  There may be much older writing on media that have perished, or writing that exists in a form that we cannot recognize as such.  
The generally-accepted theory about this is that writing emerged when large numbers of people began living together in towns and engaging in such complex economic transactions that they could no longer keep track of them without tangible reminders.
That nearly all of the world's hunter-gatherers and many farming and pastoral societies did perfectly well without written records until recently, when they started bumping into literate state-level societies.  This suggests writing may not have been necessary for daily living in much of human prehistory.  Competing with literate people (a very recent phenomenon) provided an incentive to become literate in recent times that is an evolutionary novelty.
Sails, buildings, and other complex structures are routinely made by non-literate societies.  So, it is probably not the case that earlier humans could not write, but rather that they did not need to do so.
(NB: Oldest Homo sapiens are 165,000-200,000 years old, Herto and Omo Kibish, both in Ethiopia.)
John Shea


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John J. Shea


Questions about Old World prehistoric archaeology (mainly Europe, Near East, and Africa during the Paleolithic period/Pleistocene Epoch). IMPORTANT: I do not give advice about colleges. I do not appraise the value of artifacts or fossils. IMPORTANT: Between February 14 and September 01, 2014, I will be on sabbatical leave. During this time I will have limited access to email. This means that there may be very long periods (i.e., weeks) between your posting a question and my having time to answer it.


University professor of anthropology/archaeology since 1991. Dozens of publications in peer-review anthropology journals. Director of archaeological-paleontological expeditions and excavations in Israel, Jordan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Kenya. See my main profile under Allexperts` "Anthropology" section. Professional website: Personal website:

>20 years as faculty at major research university

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