The Origins of Writing

Inventory accounting, memory, and the birth of writing

Some of the world's earliest known writing systems - early Dynastic Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mycenean and Knossian Linear-B, Babylonian cuneiforms, and Chinese pictographs - are heavily represented in the archeological record by long lists of bins of grain, jars of oil, weapons and armor, and other common goods of these first civilizations. The urge to make the flow of goods and services more efficient is perhaps identical with the urge of civilization itself.

Dr. Gunter Dreyer of the German Institute of Archaeology is perhaps the most prominent of a number of archeologists who believe that writing actually developed out of early marks that were used to tally the kinds and amounts of goods in stock at ancient warehouses. Dr. Dreyer recently discovered numerous inscribed bone labels attached to bags of oil and linen in the tomb of King Scorpion I at Abydos, Egypt. The labels date back 5300 years, are the world's earliest known writing, and describe inventory owners, amounts, and suppliers.

Inventory control goes back further than writing, however. Even before systems of representing specific sounds by specific pictures arose - the systems that let you look at a letter "s" and associate it with the hissing sound one makes by pressing the tongue lightly behind the upper teeth and squeezing air out of the lungs, for example - there were simpler inscriptions in Egyptian and Babylonian warehouses and granaries, with pictures that represented the inventory owner and numbers representing amounts in stock and taxes due.

Writing probably arose from the desire to enhance administrative efficiency, and only then went on to bloom into the vast gardens of literature, poetry, and descriptive writing that we think of today when we hear the word "writing". These gardens had the chance to bloom only after inventory writing helped to turn the flow and regulation of civilization-critical goods and taxes into a science in each of the major early civilizations.

With only a small part of the population free from food-cultivation, no early civilization could rely on unaided human memory to keep track of inventory. A smarter solution had to be, and was, found that could keep vast granaries, warehouses, and depots running smoothly. The organizers of these bygone times faced many of the same challenges that modern warehouse, manufacturing, and logistics decision-makers face, and responded to these challenges by enhancing the most basic form of record keeping that exists - language itself.

Without the tomb labels of Abydos and the granary cuneiforms of Babylon, those primal versions of the humble SKU, there likely would have been no mighty Shakespeare, nor anyone like him. There would have been only oral bards whose gifts, including even the prodigious gifts of the most famous singer of the epic song known as Iliad, would have vanished with the tongues that let them be known in life. Nor can modern civilization as a whole exist without methods of tracking and using inventory information that exceed the power of unaided recall.

The urge that created the early inventory records of Egypt, Greece and Babylon has kept going strong even up to our own time. The progression of inventory records shows a drive for greater and greater durability, accuracy, and level of convenience. The desire for reliable, accurate, and fast inventory accounting has led to the development of inventory accounting software, a mechanized version of the ancient record-keeping scribe who once scratched IDs into bits of bone to assist with a task human memory was unable to handle

Written by Anton Dolinsky for Almyta Systems. When author's and Almyta Systems names are mentioned, the reproduction is freely allowed.