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Black People Invented Writing

Black People Invented Writing

We tend to think that there’s some deep difference between the letters of the English alphabet, the characters of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, and the “crude” picture-writing you find on ancient artifacts from other parts of the world. But the very nature of written language is symbolism, each word and letter visually representing a meaning that you won’t know unless someone teaches you the language. Even the English letter A actually comes from the Phoenician pictograph for a bull’s head, upside (see for yourself). No matter where you go on the planet, every written language – no matter how much the symbols don’t look like anything else now – was once a very simple register of basic symbols.

Well, what happened to African Writing?

Don’t be rude. I’ll explain. In an online review of over a dozen indigenous African scripts, I came across the following quote: “It is rather interesting to note that no alphabet is known to have ever been formed by Europeans.”[i] I never thought about it like that. But it’s true. Every written script they have ever used came from Black people. Greek, Hebrew, even English. All of it came from Black people, or at least “other” people. But it’s documented. None of it was “indigenous” to Europeans. Yet we never think about that.

And yet they told the world that Africa was where written language was lacking, and used this as justification for their dehumanization of its people and the rewriting of their history! As Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. says in the documentary Wonders of the African World:

You see European philosophers said that Africans had no indigenous writing systems. We had no writing, we had no memory. If you have no memory you have no history. If you have no history, you’re not a human being.

This is not rhetoric. This is literally what Europeans said. In 1923, Professor A.P. Newton was invited to address the Royal African Society on the topic of “Africa and Historical Research.” He began his lecture with the following words:

Africa had no history before the coming of the Europeans. History only begins when men take to writing. And since Africa had no knowledge of writing, information of African history could be found only in material remains, in language and in primitive culture.

When you learned about Africa, didn’t it seem odd that Egypt was the only place to develop writing? While there are some good reasons for this void, it’s not as much of a void as you think.

In fact, Africa has had dozens of indigenous writing systems, from the Bagam and Shumom scripts of early Cameroon to the philosophical language of West African Adinkra and Akan symbols, to the Vai syllabary that resembles the undeciphered script of Easter Island…there are countless examples of indigenous African writing. And they look SO different from the letters that you’re used to seeing…you know they’ve gotta be indigenous and original.

In 1932, Professor Henry Wirth noted that pictographic symbols found in both the Indus Valley and Easter Island were also found in “North and South America, Sweden, Southern Andalusia [Spain], Mesopotamia, Africa and Oceania.” For example, the symbol we known as the swastika is found in many of these places since ancient times, and may have been a part of the first written language.[ii]

But some of these indigenous systems were actually suppressed and destroyed by European settlers, while others were lost in the chaos of European rule![iii] Others were associated with people outside of Africa to disguise their origins. For example, the Phoenician script (from which we get most of our modern English alphabet) developed from the same source as other North African scripts.

Most of these scripts have not survived, except for some rare examples, like the script still being used today by the desert tribes of the Tuareg (which derives from the North African Numidian script)[iv] and the inscriptions discovered among the Guanches of the Canary Islands situated off the northwest coast of Africa, which bear similarities with ancient Libyan or Numidic writing.[v]

How did written language begin?

While we’d like to think it all started with “picture-writing,” it’s also possible that highly representational (detailed) picture-writing developed alongside more abstract (simple) forms of writing. For example, while many people think the elaborate mdw ntr (hieroglyphics) on the Egyptian temple walls are the oldest form of writing, they’re only partly right. “Classic” hieroglyphics are on the Narmer Palette of 3200 BC, but there are proto-hieroglyphic inscriptions from that area, over a thousand years older, and were used at the same time as the less time-consuming hieratic script.[vi] So if we can find pictographs AND a simplified script in 4000 BC – in brushed ink at that – can you imagine how far back we’d have to dig to find the first written language of the Nile Valley?

And guess what? We won’t find it, because that brushed ink doesn’t last forever. But we can at least determine that written language has changed considerably from what it once looked like. The predynastic proto-hieroglyphs and hieratic script became “modern” hieroglyphics and demotic script.

But during that transition, these scripts birthed new scripts, like the Proto-Sinaitic alphabet of the Near East (c. 2000 BC), which gave birth to the South Arabian picture alphabet (also known as the Yemeni alphabet or musnad) and its cursive twin Zabur. These two scripts then became Ge’ez in Ethiopia and modern Arabic in Arabia. Arabic is read from right to left because that’s how the languages before it were read, beginning with Egyptian hieratic, which looks surprisingly similar despite the age difference.

To continue on this line, modern English employs the Roman alphabet, which derives from the Phoenician, which either derives from Proto-Sinaitic, which derives from ancient Egypt or derives from Numidian, which also leads us back to Egypt. Once again, we started this.

Getting back to the point, whether you’re looking at proto-hieroglyphics in the Near East or the characters carved on the oracle bones (tortoise shells used for divination) of Neolithic China, you’ll notice that even these “ancient” examples appear mature, as if they’d already been developed for thousands of years before being used on the artifacts we’re calling the “oldest” examples.

Because traditional histories suggest that the first writing was done using natural materials (carved wood, brushed ink, etc.), it’s safe to say that most of this stuff is gone now. So we’re left to wonder what it all must have looked like another 5,000 years back. To answer that question, we’ve got to work backwards, starting with why we have written language to begin with.

Why did We start Writing?

While ancient writing was used for everything from record-keeping to communicating with the Gods, the earliest inscriptions – wherever they are found – exist as an indicator of property ownership (like the ‘name-seals’ of ancient India or the clan-name markings of Neolithic China). In societies where there was no personal ownership of property (and everything was shared collectively), complex writing rarely developed. Now, let’s be clear.

These same “primitive” people who never “learned how to write” somehow managed to preserve thousands of years of history through oral tradition alone. Imagine that: one person who can tell you 30,000 years of local history, WITH commentary. So it’s not like we weren’t smart enough to write things down. We were actually smart enough not to need to!

Yet wherever a bunch of different people found themselves living close together (in what we now call a “civilization”), property disputes were bound to arise. As a result, we started marking our territory and belongings. If you think about it this way, it wasn’t necessarily an advance! As society became more complicated, so did the extent of our written language. And here we are today, with 500 different words for “steal” when 20,000 years ago, we had none.

What was communication like before then?

So did we “need” written language to communicate ideas other than “This is Alagar’s stuff. Touch it and you die”? Well, as noted earlier, there’s not many written records older than 6,000 years (although the underwater remains in the Gulf of Cambay appear to have 9,000 year old inscriptions resembling the seals of the ancient Indus Valley). But if we look at what HAS survived, we find symbolic “writing” that used shapes (particularly lines and dots) and other representations as early as 30,000 years ago.

Examples include the Wabuti art of Central Africa,[vii] the geometric symbols found in prehistoric cave paintings,[viii] and the linear grooves and cupules (round holes) found in rock art – throughout the world – that is at least 200,000 years old![ix] Another little known example can be found in small forms of notation known as Azilian pebbles. Over a thousand have been found around Europe. Historian H. G. Wells stated: “Even before Neolithic times, men were beginning to write. The Azilian rock pictures…show the beginning of the process.”

Wells believed these pebbles were created by the “dark-whites” who populated Europe in prehistoric times and who would later be known to historians as the Mediterranean race.[x] _ Piette was said to have seen in this characters the elements of a “primeval alphabet.”[xi] Claude Couraude analyzed Azilian markings and concluded that the combinations of signs (lines and dots) show some sort of ‘syntax.’ Couraud speculated that some sort of cyclic notation is involved, perhaps lunar in nature, like some of the markings found on bones from the same general period, alluding to artifacts like Ishango bone of Central Africa.[xii]

If we consider items like the Azilian pebbles of Europe and other three-dimensional objects like the small geometrical objects (cones, spheres, disks, etc.) found sealed in clay “envelopes” in the Middle East (dated to around 8,500 BC)[xiii] as instances of early writing or notation, then we should definitely look at the notched sticks and bones used by indigenous people long before this era.

To this day, Australian Aborigines and some African people use “message sticks” to communicate complicated messages over hundreds of miles (in the earliest form of a postal service), using only a series of lines and dots carved into a wooden stick.[xiv] We don’t, of course, have any wooden sticks that are 30,000 years old, but it’s clear the traditions go back at least this far.

So what does this tell us? That we once did ten times more than we do now, with ten times less. Before the dots and lines, logically working our way backwards, what are we left with?

Well, dots and lines – like Morse code – can be used to represent very complex concepts, from the hexagrams of the I Ching to the “dots and lines” used to represent molecular models of elements and covalent bonds. Dots and lines were the first binary code, before 0s and 1s made computers do what they do, we were doing astronomical calculations with notches and holes carved into bones.

Those dots and lines are pretty fundamental when you think about it. Using dots and lines we can actually reconstruct the molecules and chemical bonds that make up the physical universe as well as the structure of our DNA itself. Some archaeologists have proposed that the dots and lines are representations of gender, with the dots, circles, and holes representing the feminine principle and the lines representing the phallic masculine principle. (See “These Rocks Tell a Story”).

Mathematically, we can consider these symbols as representing the principles of 0 and 1, making them quite literally the first binary code. The mathematical nature of this early symbolism can also be found in musical notation, which also relies on dots and lines. Perhaps our precussive rhythms were an ancient Morse code (dots and dashes tapped out to convey messages). Working our way backwards from message sticks, we are left with long-distance symbolic communication in the form of drumming, smoke signals, animal calls, and environmental markers we left behind to inform other groups who passed through the same areas. 300,000 years before Twitter and Facebook, we invented the first “status updates.”

 

[i] Nigeria Wiki. “African Writing Systems.” http://nigerianwiki.com/wiki/African_Writing_Systems

[ii] W.W.L. (Nov 12 1932). Nature, 130, p. 741.

[iii] www.library.cornell.edu/africana/Writing_Systems/Shumom.html

[iv] Friedrich, Johannes, (1957). “Extinct Languages,” (trans. Frank Gaynor). The Philosophical Library.

[v] Verneau, Rene R. (1881). “Sur les anciens habitants de la Isleta, Grande Canarie,” Bulletin of Social Anthropology.

[vi] Goedicke, Hans (1988). Old Hieratic Paleography. Halgo, Inc.

[vii] www.library.cornell.edu/africana/Writing_Systems/Wabuti.htm

[viii] Genevieve Von Petzinger, “Initial findings from the study of 146 French rock art sites,” Bradshaw Foundation. www.bradshawfoundation.com/geometric_signs/geometric_signs_france.php

[ix] Robert Bednarisk. “Cupules: the oldest surviving rock art.” International Newsletter on Rock Art 30: 18-23. http://mc2.vicnet.net.au/home/cognit/shared_files/cupules.pdf

[x] Wells, H.G. (1922). A Short History of the World: Sumeria, Early Egypt and Writing. MacMillan.

[xi] Arthur Evans. (1901.) “The Palace of Minos.” Vignaud Pamphlets: Crete. p. 436)

[xii] Bahn, Paul G. (1984). “How to Spot a Fake Azilian Pebble,” Nature, 308:229.

[xiii] Anonymous. (Aug 1977). “From Reckoning to Writing,” Scientific American, p. 58.

[xiv] AW Howitt, (1998). “Notes on Australian Message Sticks and Messengers”, Journal of the Anthropological Institute, Ngarak Press (originally printed 1889). p. 317-8,

1 Comment

  1. Rom Caitlin says:

    Great article, but it’s a pity it misses out on the even older pictographs in Australian Indigenous paintings.

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