Grab Your Ledgers: Writing is Accounting

(This post is best read with a beer and a piece of toast.)

Accountants were the first writers. Well, maybe it’s more accurate to say that merchants in ancient Sumeria developed the cuneiform script around 2500 B.C. for accounting purposes. We want to be factual. Let me remind you that this is non-fiction. (Nevermind that the date is appoximate.) But to tell you the history of writing, I need to talk about grass and how we learned to eat it, the technology that has most drastically transformed the face of the planet.

Beer is the source of western civilization. (If you haven’t popped open a beer yet, I can wait until you snag one.) Or if you prefer bread. Women (and let’s be flexible with this term as there were trannys then, just as there are trannys now and many others who undoubtedly played a dual role. I had better repeat the subject of this sentence since it has been such a long time since we heard from it–) Women in the fertile crescent, arching from the hills of Iraq to the Mediterranean Sea, learned that if they soaked the seeds of barley in water for a long time (and let it ferment), they had a bitter drink that made them feel cheerful.

Simple beer is a three step process: gathering the grain, separating it from the stem and soaking it in water. Then of course the waiting and the drinking. Later it also involved mixing the bitter liquid with a syrup from dates or honey and the happy invention of straws, later mate-style drinking devices (this was before filters). Bread involves gathering, threshing, grinding, mixing with other ingredients and baking and implies the invention of grinding technologies and ovens. All in all bread is much harder than beer. Whichever, the technology was that of eating grass. Cows could do it, but we couldn’t stomach the plant and in the ice age there wasn’t much else to eat.

Women began to return to the same places year after year saving a portion of every harvest of grain and scattering it in the mud. This worked well enough to settle down and rely on a more a less consistent source of food. This was at a cost, however, as the bones and teeth of the first farmers shows they were undernourished. After inventing irrigation, the first farmers moved onto the fertile plains and their men followed bringing their goats with them (this was man’s contribution to civilization: the domestication of animals).

From the invention of farming comes everything we would recognize as “civilization”: specialization, professions, organized religion, priestesses, priests (the priestesses came first), wealth, stratification, classes, leaders (women at first), traffic, pollution, and war (another of man’s contributions to society and the moment when women began to lose power).

But I am not writing the story of civilization, this is the story of stories. What we are concerned with here is writing. Beer and bread and war were only the preface. As the first cities of Endu, Ur and Uruk developed on the plain and more and more people began specializing in various trades, the number and variety of goods produced exploded and trade boomed.

To keep track of all the transactions, merchants began to make tokens to represent the goods. Later they wrapped these tokens in hollow balls made of clay, the first contracts. However, it was impossible to know what was in the ball without breaking open the ball and literally breaking the contract, so they began to recreate the tokens on the surface of the ball in two dimensional drawings pressed into the clay with a pointed stick. Finally someone realized that the tokens were obsolete; all they needed were the marks on the clay and walla! writing was born.

(Drawn mostly from my own memory. No, not my memory of the invents themselves, but the memory of my Sumerian studies, which is part of my life project to read the history of the universe, core text being The Cartoon History of the Universe by Larry Gonick, which I highly recommend. Also consulted, Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia, by Michael Roaf.)

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