Did ancient priests invent writing before states co-opted it?

 Did ancient priests invent writing before states co-opted it? May 21, 2020

In 1971, Shong Lue Yang, a 41-year-old Hmong “squirrel-hunting basket-maker and mountain rice-farmer” in Laos was assassinated by government soldiers.

This curious historical footnote was recalled in a fascinating recent article in the online e-zine Aeon, titled “The deep roots of writing: Was writing invented for accounting and administration or did it evolve from religious movements, sorcery or dreams?”

writing language history religion culture civilization
The words of God: Arabic text in the Quran, Islam’s holy book. The religion only allows the depiction of Allah’s words, not his creatures, including humans, which is why there are no human representations in mosque art, only language. (orangefan_2011, Flikr, CC BY-ND 2.0)

Shong Lue’s apparently ill-advised political leanings were among the least interesting things about him, though. More compelling, considering he was illiterate, was his development of the first true alphabet of the Hmong, a long marginalized, persecuted people living today in parts of southern China, Vietnam and Laos.

Like other spiritual visionaries — the Islamic prophet Muhammad comes to mind — Shong Lue believed that literacy was essential to spreading the revelations he claimed to have received from God. Muhammad had famously urged his followers to read aloud the words he said he received from Allah (God) that now comprise that faith’s holy book, the Quran — “Recite!” the prophet commanded.

Although some have argued that the letters of the alphabet Shong Lue is credited with inventing already existed elsewhere in Asia, his script was specifically created to capture the unique language of his people. Thousands of his followers honored him as the “Mother (Source) of Writing,” and many Hmong believed he was their long-anticipated messiah.

A book about Shong Lue was published in 1990 — The Mother of Writing: The Origin and Development of a Hmong Messianic Script — written by William Smalley, an anthropological linguist who lived among the Hmong, with the visionary’s chief disciple, Chia Koua Vang, and another follower.

writing language history religion culture civilization
New alphabet: The name of Shong Lue Yang written is the Pahawh Hmong script he invented. (WhisperToMe, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

All of this is not to say Shong Lue wasn’t a rather strange character. He believed he was a direct descendent of God, claimed he received the Pahawh Hmong script from a pair of supernatural twins, and insisted that those who accepted his writing system would survive and escape the hardships that led to the Loatian Civil War (1959-1975). He named himself “Savior of the Common People” and taught a message of redemption.

What’s of particular interest to this blog is the question of whether religious ideology was the true motivator of Shong Lue’s extraordinary invention of a new script for the language of his people — and whether religion was likewise important, perhaps essential, to the historical development of writing in general in the world.

Michael Erard, the author, journalist and linguist who wrote “The deep roots of writing” for Aeon, considers how writing may have emerged:

The question is this: is writing the product of the state in every single stage of its evolution, invented de novo [from the beginning] by administrative elites?” Erard posits. “Or is it composed of pre-existing representational practices that expanded to fill the needs of the state and complex society?”

Could it have emerged randomly and spontaneously with individuals for private purposes, as it did with Shong Lu, and then been adopted by the wider culture and fully incorporated into its lifestyle and general practices?

Religion for long millennia has been a driving force of most cultures, and the priestly classes in antiquity were often wealthy, so Erard suggests a system of counting at least was likely necessary (e.g., to organize and manage religious commodities), ultimately spawning a more sophisticated writing system for states to communicate and preserve ideas, rules, plans and bureaucratic computations.

Erard views the advent of writing as a many-layered historical phenomenon that expands and becomes more complex as states expand and their management needs metastasize.

… let’s realise that a sound, a syllable and a word are all things in the world that can be assigned a graphic symbol,” he writes. “This invention depends on the previous ones, and itself is made of innovations, realisations, solutions and hacks. Then comes the functional invention: let’s use this set of symbols to write a list of captives’ names, or a contract about feeding workers, or a letter to a distant garrison commander. All these moves belong to an alchemy of life that makes things go boom.”

As evidence for his theory of the probable religious roots of writing, Erard notes that early writing in Mesopotamia in the Middle East, one of the world first great civilizations, “had no overtly political function” (quoting archaeologist David Wengrow of University College London in his book What Makes Civilization? (2010).

“Instead, for the first 300-400 years of early cuneiform texts in the region (from about 3300-2900 BCE), Wengrow sees a bookkeeping function for managing temple-factories of the day,” Erard writes. “‘There is hardly any use of writing for what I would view as state-like functions (eg, dynastic monuments, taxation, tribute, narratives of political events) until the Early Dynastic period,’ [Wengrow] told me.”

Other archaeological research into Mesopotamian history revealed that counting systems hugely predated writing in the region. Archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat in the 1960s discovered “tokens” in the area’s Neolithic sites going back to 8,000 BCE, “well before the earliest states emerged in Mesopotamia,” Erard explained.

The tokens were in the form of small cylinders, pyramids, discs and balls, which denoted “one cone per unit of grain, one diamond per unit of honey, and so forth.” Original, tokens were stored in groups within sealed clay balls known as “envelopes,” which, because their contents could not be checked later, eventually spurred development of another system to make an impression of the token on the outside of the envelop. Later still, the token and envelopes were done away with entirely and tabulation was done just by impressing on wet clay tablets abstract signs that only mimicked tokens.

Even long before Mesopotamian writing, as early as 1320 BCE, China was writing “divination texts carved into bone and turtle shell” at a time that archaeological evidence does not support the existence of a complex functioning state, Erard points out.

Ultimately in world history, systems with other signs emerged in various cultures to represent language sounds, words and concepts in ever more sophisticated forms of writing that we see in their linguistic descendants today.

“As far as the reductive argument that accountants invented writing in Mesopotamia, it’s true that writing came from counting, but temple priests get the credit more than accountants do,” Erard concludes. “‘Priests invented writing’ is a reduction I can live with – it posits writing as a tool for contacting the supernatural realm, recording the movement of spirits, inspecting the inscrutable wishes of divinities. … In fact, in various corners of the Earth and throughout history, inventors have crafted alphabets and syllabaries to resist the state.”

We were a little behind the writing curve in the Americas. The oldest writing sample so far discovered in the “New World,” in Mexico in the late 1990s, “is a slab of serpentine scratched with 62 symbols … similar to shamanic writing ‘devised by religious specialists, with tightly restricted, revelatory functions’” that dates to only 900 BCE, according to an article by anthropologists article written by anthropologists in Science in 2016.

Whatever its origins, however, human written language remains a glory of our species.


Please sign up (top right) to receive new Godzooks posts via email, Facebook or Twitter

“Erudite yet readable … very illuminating”

— Richard Dawkins, author of “The God Delusion,” in praise of “Holy Smoke”

Buy either book on Amazon, here (paperback or ebook editions)

"Nature.com The manufacture of the Coronavirus spike mRNA is an acellular process done in factories. ..."

Of faith, fetal cells, coronavirus vaccines ..."
"The science here isn't quite right.The Moderna and Pfizer mRNA vaccines aren't made using fetal ..."

Of faith, fetal cells, coronavirus vaccines ..."
"About the bishops and priests who want to forbid taking the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, ..."

Of faith, fetal cells, coronavirus vaccines ..."
"Yes. The God of the Old Testament is a piece of evil work, isn't He?"

Family of Rep. Adam Kinzinger worships ..."

Browse Our Archives