As we put pen to paper transmitting thoughts and ideas to others without face-to-face interaction, do we ever wonder that it is a fairly recent innovation in the human story?
The Egyptians developed hieroglyphs around 3300 BC although this pictorial form of writing displayed prominently on obelisks and monuments is a trifle cumbersome on a page. No, it was the Sumerians, those industrious farmers of the fertile lands beside the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, who with an eye towards record-keeping and keeping accounts focused on a more convenient writing system. They invented cuneiform.
It is somehow fantastic to come to the realization when we write that its origins can be traced back nearly 5,000 years — to Sumer and men marking soft clay tablets with wedge-shaped markings. Easily available clay from soft alluvial soils and stencils from reeds provided the basics.
In the last hundred or so years, archeologists have been digging up these clay tablets in quantities where the vast majority remain untranslated. Literature, law codes, historical narratives, religious hymns and the Gilgamesh saga are all there in the Sumerian language.
The language itself is what philologists call an isolate — a language unconnected to any other known language. During the third millennium BC, the Sumerians in the south began mixing with the Semetic populations of northern Babylonia, and after a period of bilingualism, the Sumerian language fell by the wayside, dying out as a lonely vernacular. Akkadian became the language of the land to be followed by others. It is Arabic now, a language far removed from that of Gilgamesh, the legendary hero-king of the city of Uruk.
A Sumerian contemporary, the Indus Valley civilization bloomed in what is now Pakistan, spreading to northeast Afghanistan and spilling over across the Pakistan border into India. Its large cities of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa contained somewhere between 30-60 thousand inhabitants according to estimates, and the whole civilization could well have boasted from one to five million people.
Also known as the Harappan Civilization, its script has still not been deciphered. By 2002 continuing excavation had yielded over a thousand mature Harappan cities and settlements. However, only five major urban sites have been found: Harappa, Mohenjo-daro, Dholavira, Ganeriwala and Rakhigarhi.
The Indus Valley Civilization lasted from 3300 to 1400 BC a period of almost 2000 years — a time period comparable to our own 2000 year calendar. They were known for sanitation systems stemming from central planning for cities that were based on a grid pattern. Logically, farmers stayed close to their land leaving cities to artisans and trades people.
It is hard to know exactly what causes the demise of a civilization, but changing climate patterns, a lack of rainfall and water shortages are often blamed. Worse are dry spells followed by floods — will that be our end as well? In Paul Valery’s famous words, “…the abyss of history is deep enough to hold us all.”