47. Language recorders and evolution of writing

(continued) Chapter 5.
Faster evolution
in human historical times


5,000 years ago: Earliest known writing

There’s one other thing these early peoples had in common:  they all discovered a need for writing, and so each of them, in their own unique ways respectively, invented it. The oldest, the Sumerians of Mesopotamia (we think; probably; pretty sure…), ushered in the earliest known forms of writing around 5,200 years ago (3,200 BCE), and the concealing veil of prehistory began to fade. As noted above, the other early civilizations invented their own forms of writing and the rest, as they say, is history.

 

Other peoples in their time would add to this new concept of writing – e.g., Celtic ogham and Norse runes were independently invented and are very old, but not so old as the Sumerian. Some say the Sumerians were driven to it by the need to keep track of their grain harvests. This speculation is fairly credible. Peoples who had become clustered in villages from which they daily walked out to tend their surrounding farms would quickly see the common sense in cooperatively building a common grainary to protect their harvests from the elements (though ogham and runes seem to be concerned with matters unrelated to grain storage). We follow the same common sense today with towering grain elevators in every whistlestop across the American great plains. Then with every Sumerian dumping his personal harvest into one big common storage bin, a reliable record would be needed to ensure someone didn’t later take out a bit more than he had put in, as some were and still are wont to do. Some things never change.

 

Clay tablets quickly evolved in response to the need for recording such transactions (and would later evolve into the counting devices we call computers). Maybe it was voluntary and cooperative, maybe a village strong man made everybody do it. In any case, numerical representation of grain quantities in and quantities out could be inscribed on a wet clay tablet which preserved the numbers by quickly drying. Archeologists dig up such tablets by the thousands, particularly in the Mesopotamian heartland of the Great Flood legends.

 

In widely separated parts of the world other human aggregations independently invented their own forms of written numbers and words – symbolic expressions of language inscribed on clay, tree bark, animal skins and papyrus sheets which would eventually evolve into paper. The Chinese did so around 3,500 years ago; the Mesoamerican Olmecs about 3,000 years ago; the Greeks around 2,750 years ago.

 

Why these occasions of repeated invention of writing are clustered within such a small window instead of widely scattered over tens of thousand of years is by no means clear. Why, for instance, didn’t someone invent writing a hundred thousand years earlier? We’re pretty sure they had language that long ago, which could have been written down if they’d thought of it and wanted to. Does this extraordinarily narrow window somehow reflect humankind’s gradual evolution up to some necessary threshold for symbolic language to begin? There is much about ourselves we don’t understand, and this question of why several inventions of writing got invented when they did, all within a narrow window of only three- to five-thousand years, is near the head of the list.

 

Every inch of this topic moreover is in dispute, of course. For example, an ancient artifact found in northern Greece called The Despilio Tablet, carbon dated to 5,260 BCE, contains text in an absolutely unknown language which – if it ever gets deciphered –  may well push scientific recognition of the earliest human writing back to between 7,000 and 8,000 years ago – far before those early Sumerian writings. Similarly, mystery surrounds the origins of the very old Basque and Finnish/Saami languages, neither of which has any connection to the very traceable European languages surrounding them, and both of which have apparent origins at least 10,000 years old. Recent analyses based on the human genome present more than the usual uncertainty. Archeologists cannot dig up evidence on how ancient languages were spoken, much less turned into written forms – we can only imagine, assume, infer, reason and deduce. And for undeciphered extremely old writings like the Harrappan, these alternatives have so far not been enough.

 

Let it be further noted that most scholars believe the Greeks initiated their writing by adopting and adapting an alphabet developed still earlier by the Phoenicians, those busy seafaring traveling salesmen of the entire Mediterranean area. Like the Basques and Finns, the origins of the Phoenicians themselves are a mystery. Were they descended from surviving Atlanteans, who may have had sophisticated written language well before 11,000 years ago? A few courageous scholars have been known to ask the question.

 

Unable to be certain when writing really began, we keep to safe certainty that it “must” have come into existence by about 3,200 BCE ago in Sumeria. Where proof isn’t quite certain, historians, like scientists, hold steadfastly to what they think they know, and that becomes perceived truth for the rest of us – even when we aren’t sure either. We’re pretty sure writing was invented independently in China (1,500 BCE), Mesoamerica (1,000 BCE) and Greece (750 BCE) simply because these places are geographically so far apart from each other. Vacation cruise liners didn’t sail to distant lands in those days, sharing languages, writing and germs.

 

Two things we do know for certain. One, written languages steadily increased in sophistication over the centuries; and two, their existence further speeded up the evolution of human culture, which had already speeded up due to agriculture.

 

Written languages steadily grew in sophistication and expressiveness down through the times of the Greeks and Romans who figure so prominently in our western history. Their Greek and Latin languages were indeed so well developed and so influential that they were the basis for half the major languages spoken in the western hemisphere today, as well as many of the words spoken in still other modern languages. Moreover the fact that human communication was now written down, and could be copied for others to read, brought many more people into the fast-widening web of human communication and cultural expansion. The spread of writing speeded up human cultural evolution, and with invention of the Gutenberg press around 1440 CE, fast evolution became faster evolution.

 

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Faster evolution

Let us be reminded, this isn’t a history lesson. Our subject is mindsets. We’re doing a quick scan of major landmarks in human evolution, both pre-historical and historical (before and after writing was created), which may help us discern and understand patterns which lie behind closed mindsets in modern humans. Such old developmental patterns do not “cause” closed mindsets, for we each and every one of us have the power of choice to freely exercise every moment of our mortal lives, and we may choose to be open minded. But the patterns we’re looking for do influence our thinking, and, especially if we never consciously think about it, we may fail to exercise our free choice and unthinkingly drift into that shutting off of the mind’s infinite capacity which we call closed mindsets.

 

Pursuant to understanding all this, and recalling that we began this review with the big bang, we are now going to scan speedily through the most recent three thousand years, observing a few broad trends and patterns, until we get down to the most recent three hundred years. (Can you feel the pace of things speeding up?) Like our modern history texts (and to save time), most of this will take place in the western hemisphere even though an equal amount of human follies were taking place in the eastern half.

 

*          *          *

Major tribal groupings: Greek; Roman; Celtic; Germanic; and Huns, among others

 

The Greeks (800 to 146 BCE)

As all the history books tell us, ancient Greece is considered the cradle of western civilization. Our broader view has already instructed us otherwise, but Greece well deserves a place at the table because democracy – that favored watchword of western civilization – is said to have had its beginning there. Other than that, most non-scholars, which is almost everyone, have a vague idea picked up here and there mostly by social osmosis about an ancient people in a place called Greece which is way over there somewhere around Europe who were very important and did a lot of the first things people do before anybody else did them. God help us. We’re not going to be able to do much about that problem here in this limited space, but we can perhaps make a germinal start for those precious few who may care to dig deeper.

 

The descendants of those old Greeks are still there today, which alone says something, tucked away in their corner of far southeastern Europe, encountering full-on the foibles of mankind though they now receive much less attention than we give their ancient forbears. The fairly meaningful history of the ancient Greeks falls under three time periods which we really should touch upon briefly just to help paint the context.

 

1) The Archaic period (800 to 480 BCE). Several highlights mark these early centuries of those famous ancients of whom we hear so much. The first Olympic Games were introduced to honor the god Zeus; they continue today but Zeus has lost status. Homer wrote the epic poems known as the Iliad and Odyssey. An arrogant Athenian lawyer named Draco gave us the word “draconian” by introducing gruesomely strict laws the breaking of which was punishable by death, no option (and today he lives again as Harry Potter’s nemesis Draco Malfoy). The scientist-philosopher-mathemetician Pythagoras introduced major ideas still in use today, by a few people. And a chap you never heard of named Cleisthenes introduced into Athenian politics an idea called “democracy” which has exhibited some staying power in a few places here and there but has always been strongly opposed by those who don’t like to share power.

 

2) The Greek Classical period (480 to 323 BCE)

After many years of constant sniping with the neighboring Persian Empire, the Greeks defeated the Persians in the famous battles of Marathon and Salamis, and neither has much liked the other ever since but at least the sniping has stopped, mostly. Sophocles and Euripides became famous in their own time for plays which are still popular here millennia later. The Parthenon was built. The sister Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta began warring against each other and persisted twenty-seven years until Sparta finally conquered Athens and the final decline of Greece’s illustrious period began. A single century contained four of the most famous names in all human history: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle – about whom more in a moment – plus Alexander the Great who again defeated those objectionable Persians enroute to conquering every human polity he encountered from India to Africa before finally restoring peace by dying. The world would perhaps have been better off if they’d crushed his head when he was an infant, as the Greeks were often wont to do with their infant females and other inferiors.

 

3) The Greek Hellenistic period (323 to 146 BCE)

The Greek Hellenistic period began with Alexander’s death and thereafter declined slowly but steadily through another 177 years until the ascendant upstart Romans conquered Greece and made it part of their rapidly expanding new empire. Regardless of that, the undefeated influence of ancient Greece reaches strongly down to the present day – quite a legacy to ponder as we wonder what the legacy of the USA will be.

 

Ancient Greece perspectives and highlights

It’s probably not quite totally true that ancient Greece was the birthplace of democracy, as most such historical “facts” turn out to be equivocal, but it is partly true, sort of – in a way quite similar to democracy in early United States history. Here’s how it worked:

 

Any citizen could address the Council of 500 (50 members elected from each of ten Athenian tribes), and could vote on any issue simply by holding up his (his) hand, whereupon the majority of hands won the vote. The trick, as in Confederate and modern America, was in defining “citizen.” First you set aside all cities except Athens. No democracy outside Athens. Then within Athens you set aside all slaves, all women, all non-adults, all the many foreigners living in Athens, and all non-notable Athenian men. Thus are set aside about eighty percent of Athenian residents. The remaining twenty percent, all men, mostly well to do, were considered citizens eligible to vote. This system developed around the fifth century BCE and lasted a little under two hundred years until Macedonia defeated Athens in 322 BCE and dispensed with that democracy thing.

 

Having adapted the older Phoenician alphabet (22 letters, all consonants) to the Greek language, the Greeks were the first Europeans to actually use an alphabet for the great flexibility it enables when writing. It was from them that the “idea” of having an alphabet spread northward through Europe. Being now able to write flexibly, the Greeks quickly became sophisticated in the art and wrote quite a lot, including sophisticated stage plays popular yet today. A surprising volume of Greek writings have survived the passage of time so that we have a pretty good record of their social doings as well as the names of some dozens of their notable personalities who are generally given super-hero status and loftily quoted. Among these as noted above are the three names you should remember even if all others escape you and they are, in sequence, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Particulars to remember about these three are minimally as follows.

 

Socrates, a teacher of young men, taught by asking questions – i.e., the Socratic Method. By the time he had asked enough questions to extract the answers he wanted, he could make the case that the pupil had already had the answers within him all the while and but needed the questioning merely to surface “what he already knew.” It seems suspect but is a bit hard to refute. Socrates was said to be physically ugly, by some standard of the day, and to have had an unpleasant wife whom he avoided by spending as much time as possible away from home teaching the boys which further irritated his unpleasant wife.

 

Socrates was sentenced to death (though not by Draco) – allegedly for “refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state,” thereby corrupting the young men with his scurrilous beliefs, but actually most likely because he insulted the contemporary potentate Pericles. Besides making an excellent early case for separation of church and state, this also reminds us how overdone are defamation laws in some modern states in zealous protection of public figures who roundly deserve defaming. Socrates stuck to his guns on the insult, drank the hemlock, and left a remarkable tale of dying with integrity as flexibly written and passed down by his pupil Plato. Of the three, Socrates has always been my personal favorite, probably because his questioning method is such fun to use on angry advocates of idiotic ideas.

 

Plato in his maturity established an academy – actually a public garden or grove in suburban Athens – which served as a gathering place for intellectuals and thinkers of the day. It is loosely called the world’s first university. Expanding on Socrates’ well developed ideas, Plato is best known for his Republic wherein he envisioned in quite some detail a city-state governed by an impossibly wise philosopher-king patterned noticeably after himself. You will recall that Plato also wrote down most of what we know about an ancient people on a large island called Atlantis that sank into the sea.

 

Aristotle is the best-known today of Plato’s many pupils. Remembered for his amazingly varied doings, the youthful Aristotle earned money by tutoring a headstrong young Macedonian known as Alexander (later to became “The Great”). In his own maturity Aristotle established a school of philosophy in the Lyceum, a temple dedicated to the god Apollo. Remains of the Lyceum were discovered in 1996 buried in a city park behind the Greek parliament building in modern Athens. Notwithstanding certain skeptics here and there, Aristotle is almost universally given credit for being a “towering figure” who in his day made significant contributions in the fields of philosophy, logic, metaphysics, mathematics, physics, politics, biology, botany and ethics as well as medicine, agriculture, dance and theater, among other amazing feats. But…

 

virtually never mentioned is the fact that of the hundreds of conclusions Aristotle reached, wrote down and publicly pronounced over his lifetime, virtually all were wrong. And not just a little wrong – they were ludicrously wrong, roaringly wrong, nuts. To any half-educated modern person, reading Aristotle’s conclusions as well as the “facts” and “reasoning” on which he bases them is an exercise in incredulity. Notwithstanding the popular judgment of Aristotle as one of history’s most brilliant minds, he ranks in my mind as one of the truly dumbest “great men” whose ideas I have ever encountered. It should be noted that the Roman Catholic Church, from its fifth-century founding in Rome through modern times, has held Aristotle in high adulation and relied on his philosophical foundations for no small number of The Church’s own philosophical-theological foundations. This may or may not carry implications, of which I decline to speculate.

 

By way of full disclosure in bringing this Grecian section to a proper close, I should just mention that I love Socrates; Plato is okay though a little wild; Aristotle pisses me off.

 

Aristotle’s prolific writings provide thousands of his assertions I could call up so that you too might come to regard his overrated name as I do, but I will content myself here with just one stunning little example which I believe adequate to do the work. These quotes are from Jeffery Masson’s wonderful little book The Pig Who Sang to the Moon:

 

Masson quotes Aristotle’s assertion: For all tame animals there is an advantage in being under human control, as this secures their survival… By analogy, the same must necessarily apply to mankind as a whole… these people are slaves by nature, and it is better for them to be subject to this kind of control, as it is better for other creatures I have mentioned.

 

Masson then observes: War and hunting, Aristotle went on to claim, are part and parcel of this philosophy and both must be waged against animals and ‘those men whose nature it is to be governed.’ How convenient these laws seem to be for the men of Aristotle’s class. Such attitudes die a slow death.

 

Slow indeed. Ah Aristotle, undeserving champion of blind historians. I’m sorry I missed his funeral, for I’m quite certain I would have enjoyed it.

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…to be continued in one week…

 

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