In the story of writing and literacy, numeracy came first. People wanted to count and track things—but perhaps it’s more accurate to say that politically powerful people wanted things counted and tracked in the areas they controlled. Things like sheep, goats, and cattle.

Some clever folks had the idea that lumps of clay could stand for the things they wanted to count. Eleven sheep? Eleven lumps of clay. That becomes cumbersome quickly. Then a better idea. Make a cone-shaped lump to stand for ten sheep, and another ball-shaped one, standing for a single sheep, to make eleven. That’s just two lumps of clay now. Progress!

Later on, as more things were counted and tracked, it became difficult to manage the many sets of clay lumps. What if there was just one clay tablet, and the different shaped lumps used for counting were pressed into the tablet, leaving their outline. It turns out to be just as easy to count those outlines than the lumps themselves, but now that each tablet might have several sets of outlines, some extra mark was needed next to each set to indicate what was being counted. The most sensible thing was to draw a picture of a sheep next to the outlines for the number of sheep, and a picture of a cow next to the outlines for the number of cows. An accounting system is born.

Once people became comfortable with using symbols to abstract away both the counts of things and labeling the things counted, they started to wonder what else they might be able to do with symbols.

The pictograms of cows and sheep seemed useful, and so they began to experiment with drawing rebus-like puzzles in their clay tablets to communicate ideas related to accounting, but a little beyond it. They strung together a picture of a moon and a sheep and some number outlines next to each to communicate an idea like “I owe you seven sheep at the end of the summer”. People added their own personal marks next to such clay tablet statements to instill confidence in these budding contract documents.

The sounds of the pictograms seemed useful as a way to continue improving the kinds of ideas that could be pressed into clay, since everyone knew what those words sounded like. Everyone also knew the names of kings, cities, and towns, and so it was reasonably simple to give each of these ideas their own sets of rebus symbols.

Over time, more shortcuts were made to make the pictograms easier to write, more facility with clay and symbols was built up to allow more packing of more symbols in a smaller space, more conventions were added around what sets of symbols corresponded to which ideas and their corresponding sounds, more ideas were brought into this system so they could be expressed, communicated, and recorded with symbols pressed into clay.

Writing was born.

Ken Kocienda @kocienda