Introducing Recorded History and the Earliest Writing

Beginning of recorded history

Written records represent a very small amount of human history. 'Pre-History' is the term often used for the long period before written records. 

Scholars generally agree that the earliest form of writing appeared almost 5,500 years ago in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). This is when we begin to have 'recorded history'.

First Nations Australians lived for tens of thousands of years before the beginning of recorded history. 'Pre-history' is therefore quite a poor term for capturing this period of time. There is so much archeological evidence, as well as oral histories, available to learn about this period before written records. 

The earliest writing

Cuneiform is the earliest writing system in the world, invented about 5500 years ago in a place called Sumer, Sumer was in Mesopotamia, home to some of the first civilisations in the world.

Cuneiform literally means "wedge-shaped", due to the triangular tip of the stylus used for impressing signs on wet clay. Cuneiform represented different languages – just like our alphabet does today.

Why did people start writing?

Cuneiform might have been developed so that people could communicate long distance in trade. They could make sure that nothing was stolen in the journey and all the goods were received.

Although cuneiform endured for over three thousand years, as simpler alphabets became common the script was eventually used only for scholarly documents, and it faded away completely in the late-first century CE.

How to teach the earliest writing

The origins of writing were fairly mundane, mainly used to record transactions. But writing progressed to become more complex.  We have lists of kings, laws, philosophies, and even stories written in ancient cuneiform text. 

Two examples of cuneiform writing which students love learning about are: the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Code of Hammurabi.

Epic of Gilgamesh

Written in cuneiform on clay tablets, the Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest known epic poem. The epic tells the story of a king, Gilgamesh, who was born to a goddess mother. Gilgamesh rules the city of Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia.

In the story, Gilgamesh goes on a quest to find immortality after he and Enkidu, his companion, perform deeds that anger the gods, resulting in Enkidu's death. Despite going through many trials, Gilgamesh loses his opportunity for physical immortality; however, he becomes immortal in the memory of Uruk and its walls.
The Code of Hammurabi is a Babylonian legal text from about 1750 BCE. It is the longest, best-organised, and best-preserved legal text from the ancient Near East. It is written in the Old Babylonian dialect of Akkadian, purportedly by Hammurabi, sixth king of the First Dynasty of Babylon. The primary copy of the text is inscribed on a basalt stele.

Hammurabi’s Code contained famous laws like, "An eye for an eye". Most of the laws related to property rights of landowners, merchants, builders, and slave masters, and the code tells us a great deal about how the ancient society was organised. 

Lesson 2 of our Early Civilisations unit contains student-friendly excerpts from the the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Code of Hammurabi as part of a sequenced lesson plan about the earliest writing. 

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