Could early man write? Oral traditions passed on


Major update 13th January 2022

Table of Contents for: Could early man write? Oral traditions passed on

The earliest existing writings

The oldest surviving writings are inscriptions on a stone tablet from the Uruk period (3300 – 3100 BC). The original is from Kish and was in the Irak Museum. [i]

Could early man write before that date?
The key point is that the stone tablet is the oldest surviving one and there probably were older ones, either not found yet, or destroyed by another nation, or they were written on materials that have perished a long time ago.

Writing was long thought to have been invented in a single civilization, a theory named ‘monogenesis’.
Scholars believed that all writing originated in ancient Sumer (in Mesopotamia) and spread over the world from there via a process of cultural diffusion.
According to this theory, the concept of representing language by written marks, though not necessarily the specifics of how such a system worked, was passed on by traders or merchants traveling between geographical regions.
However, the discovery of the scripts of ancient Mesoamerica, far away from Middle Eastern sources, proved that writing had been invented more than once.
Scholars now recognize that writing may have independently developed in at least four ancient civilizations:
Mesopotamia (between 3400 and 3100 BCE),
Egypt (around 3250 BCE),
China (1200 BCE),
and lowland areas of Southern Mexico and Guatemala (by 500 BCE).

‘History of writing’ Wikipedia [ii]

What about if the writing did originate in ancient Sumer but before that date?
The earliest writings could have all disintegrated or they just haven’t been found yet.
The earliest people could have written things on materials that didn’t last, then after Noah the generations spread out from there.
So could early man write:

Exaggerated stories around a camp fire?

Humans had been speaking for a couple hundred thousand years before they got the inspiration or nerve to mark their ideas down for posterity.
But when a Mesopotamian people called the Sumerians finally did scratch out a few bookkeeping symbols on clay tablets 5,000 years ago, they unknowingly started a whole new era in history we call, well … history.
The presence of written sources denotes the technical dividing line between what scholars classify as prehistory versus what they call history, which starts at different times depending on what part of the world you’re studying.”

‘How Writing Changed the World’ by Heather Whipps [iii]
Just tales told around a bonfire - Oral traditions passed on. Or could early man write?
Just tales told around a bonfire or could early man write?

We are told by ‘popular history’ that mankind spent thousands of years passing on historical stories by word of mouth.

This by implication would include exaggeration and legend.

The first part of the Bible is included in this assumption.

So when people say the Bible was passed down from generation to generation, they are just stating a theory.
There is no actual proof to substantiate it.
Are there reasons we should reject the theory that the biblical records were passed by word of mouth for generations before being written?
Certainly. Anyone who studies the history of oral traditions knows that details get lost, names and places are forgotten or replaced, and there is a tendency to exaggerate, either for better or worse, such that the good guys become very good and the bad guys become evil incarnate.
The Bible is written in a way that shows it is not just a book of oral traditions.
The characters are depicted in ways that are inspiring, heart-warming, true to life, convincing, and convicting.
They have their good points and their human weaknesses.”

‘Wasn’t the bible passed down verbally from generation to generation before it was written?’ by Spirit and Truth [xii]

The writer of Genesis had a written account

I don’t believe that those early stories were passed only by word of mouth, because by looking at Genesis we see something very interesting. It states:

This is the written account of Adam’s line…”

Genesis 5:1

‘Written account’ is a written document.
The Hebrew is ‘ceper’ סֵפֶר, meaning “book; document; writing.” [iv]

There is every possibility that Adam from the very beginning kept records of passing days, years, life story and other things.

What could Adam have written on?

The Mangyan tribe in the Philippines used bamboo shoots to carve their script on [v].
The ancient Tamils of South India used palm leaves [vi].

Here is a list of materials that have been used for writing on:
Plant based written materials:

  • Palm leaf (Borassus),
  • Ola leaf (Corypha umbraculifera),
  • Birch bark (Betula),
  • Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus),
  • Bamboo and wooden slips,
  • Paper,
  • Amate Trema micrantha,
  • Ficus aurea,
  • Parabaik (Streblus asper),
  • Samut khoi (S. asper),
  • Kraing (Morus bark).

Other written materials:

  • Clay tablet,
  • Wax tablet,
  • Intaglio,
  • Stone,
  • Animal skin Parchment,
  • Vellum,
  • Oracle bone,
  • Silk text,
  • Geoglyph (large drawing on the ground). [vii]

But how long do these written materials survive for?

Surprisingly, palm leaf manuscripts can be kept for up to 400 or 500 years in a dry environment, [viii] but nowhere near as long where there was any humidity.

Ink on Egyptian Papyrus about 1961–1917 B.C. Could early man write? Oral traditions passed on.
Ink on Egyptian Papyrus about 1961–1917 B.C. Heqanakht Account VII Period: Middle Kingdom. Dynasty 12 reign of Senwosret I. [ix]

The above papyrus written document is nearly 4000 years old!

Had Adam, Cain and others written on palm leaves, or something similar?

Did Moses have a stack of these deteriorating records and did he copy them to form Genesis chapters one to five?

Had Noah, Abraham and others written down their stories onto parchments that were deteriorating by Moses’ time?

I believe that Moses had lots of ageing, deteriorating documents that he was able to read and then from those, write what we now know as Genesis.

Experts thought the Inca’s couldn’t write but now…

It’s long been believed the great Inca civilization never left behind any written records.
But what if that’s just because we couldn’t recognize their writing?
A fascinating new study reveals the Incas did leave a written history behind [x] – we just didn’t recognize it…
One such group of artifacts is known as “khipu.”
These are a system of knots tied into cords.
Amazingly, these knotted cords are actually a system to store numbers…
There is no reason to believe that Adam, Noah, etc. did not have a written language/language system and could have handed documents down to Moses and later generations.”

‘Could the Inca People Write?’ by Ken Ham [xi]

Was Hebrew the earliest language?

There is controversial research into the Hebrew language and it’s antiquity.
I say ‘controversial’ because anything that has a connection with the Bible is seen, by many secular authorities, as being religious and unscientific, and therefore the research conclusions have to wade through many biased, knee-jerk reactions before it is taken seriously.

Here is a comment from Creation Ministries International that does take the book seriously:

Douglas Petrovich, who earned a PhD with a major in Syro-Palestinian archaeology from the University of Toronto and taught about ancient Egypt at Ontario’s Wilfrid Laurier University, published a book on the earliest alphabet.
In his book ‘The World’s Oldest Alphabet’, he argues that Hebrew was the first language to use a script that represented the consonants of a language.
An alphabet that represents only consonants is called an abjad. A consonantal alphabet does not have symbols for the vowel sounds.
The vowel sounds are left implicit and added among the consonants when the text is read.
For example, the consonants CT could be read as ‘cut’ or ‘cat’, depending on the context.
Petrovich states that, “Until the present day, one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in the field of epigraphical* studies related to the ANE [Ancient Near East] has been the identification of the language of the pictographic, proto-consonantal script that has been found on a variety of writing surfaces in Egypt, Sinai, and the Levant**.” [pp. 6–7]
His contention is that Hebrew is the language that is represented in the original proto-consonantal script—not Phoenician (or another language) as has been generally believed.”

‘The world’s oldest alphabet’ Evidence suggests it may have been developed by the Hebrews, not the Phoenicians, as believed. by James R. Hughes [xiii]

* ‘Epigraphy’ is the study of inscriptions, or epigraphs, as writing.
** ‘The Levant’ is an approximate historical geographical term referring to a large area in the Eastern Mediterranean region.

Alphabetic chart of Proto Consonantal Hebrew
Alphabetic chart of Proto Consonantal Hebrew [xiv]

Eugene H. Merrill, PhD Distinguished Professor of Old Testament Studies (Emeritus) Dallas Theological Seminary writes in the Introduction of the book:

However, if one grants the antiquity of the written Hebrew tradition in line with that of cultures surrounding the Levant*, nothing should stand in the way of positing analogously** the existence of Hebrew writings also composed in pre-alphabetic form.
Putting this line of thought to the side, the focus of Professor Petrovich’s work is not so much on theories about Hebrew pre-alphabetic literatureas[sic] on the antiquity of the Hebrew alphabetic tradition itself.
Indeed, his thesis is that the Hebrew alphabet was not only early, but the earliest of all, the progenitor of all alphabets and alphabetic writing!
Important to his thesis is the irrefutable fact that the use by scribes of alphabetic notations is attested to from a number of sites, exclusively so far to the ancient Near East.
Very early movements along this line are seen in both cuneiform syllabic and Egyptian proto-alphabetic signs as visual precursors to the consonants.”

From Introduction by Eugene H. Merrill, PhD Distinguished Professor of Old Testament Studies (Emeritus) Dallas Theological Seminary November 2016 for ‘The World’s Oldest ALPHABET – Hebrew as the Language of the Proto-Consonantal Script’ by Douglas Petrovich [xiv]

* ‘The Levant’ is an approximate historical geographical term referring to a large area in the Eastern Mediterranean region.
** ‘analogously’ means: similar or alike in such a way as to permit the drawing of an analogy.

I have long thought that when Adam and Eve were created they had the capacity to write as well as talk.
That written language, I believe, was Hebrew and throughout history it has survived.
But in a number of instances the skill of writing has died out in some civilisations – a ‘technology lost’ scenario and had to be ‘reinvented’.
See: Could Noah have built the Ark – he was an Ancient engineer

It certainly is an intriguing thought that the Hebrew language was the first one.
Also remember that Adam (and Eve) were God’s perfect, pinnacle of creation and we don’t know how much was lost when they disobeyed God and were driven from the Garden of Eden.

How did early humans write?

There are a lot of surprising materials that mankind could use, and have used.
Here are just some:
Clay tablets, wax tablets, stone, animal skin parchment, bone, silk, palm leaves, bark, papyrus, bamboo, paper, etc.
If they are stored in a dry environment, palm leaves can survive for 400 to 500 years.
Papyrus has been found nearly 4000 years old.
Obviously there must be thousands of ‘documents’ that have been lost due to decay, so the ‘evidence’ for early writing is going to be hard to find.

What is the earliest recorded history?

A ‘recorded’ history means written documentation.
Many scholars believe the Sumerian cuneiform script is the oldest at about 2600 BC.
But some recent scholars believe that Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt (the Exodus) in 1445 or 1446 BC.
Many think that the Bible is not a reliable source of history and that it was passed down orally.
Traditionally Moses was the writer of Genesis which refers to very old history which he copied from ancient manuscripts: “This is the written account of Adam’s line…” (Genesis 5:1).
Therefore I propose that Genesis is the earliest recorded history copied from various decaying manuscripts handed down or recopied by previous generations.

How many years did Moses live before Jesus?

Some recent scholars believe that Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt (the Exodus) in 1445 or 1446 BC (not the the widely-held view of it being during the time of Ramses II, which doesn’t really fit the history).
Moses lived for a further 40 years after the Exodus.
Taking the evidence of the crucifixion, Jesus’ baptism, the temple’s age, king Herod’s reign and the Roman census a fair assumption would be that Jesus was born around 4 B.C.
Moses died about 1400 years before Jesus was born.

Reference:
[i] Babylonian Culture and Tablets
[ii] ‘History of writing’ Wikipedia
[iii] ‘How Writing Changed the World’ by Heather Whipps
[iv] Vine, W. E., Unger, M. F., & White, W., Jr. (1996). Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Vol. 1, p. 21). Nashville, TN: T. Nelson.
[v] The Culture and Art of the Mangyan by: Jericho Paul Santos
[vi] Palm manuscript image
[vii] ‘Palm-leaf manuscript’ Wikipedia
[viii] ‘Endangered Archives Programme’ British Library
[ix] From Upper Egypt, Thebes, Deir el-Bahri, Tomb of Ipy (TT 315, MMA 516B), Tomb of Meseh, MMA excavations, The Met Museum Credit Line: Rogers Fund and Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1922
[x] ‘We thought the Incas couldn’t write. These knots change everything’ New Scientist
[xi] ‘Could the Inca People Write?’ by Ken Ham, Answers in Genesis
[xii] ‘Wasn’t the bible passed down verbally from generation to generation before it was written?’ by Spirit and Truth
[xiii] ‘The world’s oldest alphabet’ Evidence suggests it may have been developed by the Hebrews, not the Phoenicians, as believed. by James R. Hughes
[xiv] From Introduction by Eugene H. Merrill, PhD Distinguished Professor of Old Testament Studies (Emeritus) Dallas Theological Seminary November 2016 for ‘The World’s Oldest ALPHABET – Hebrew as the Language of the Proto-Consonantal Script’ by Douglas Petrovich

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