Origins of Writing in Northeastern Africa
- John Coleman DarnellJohn Coleman DarnellDepartment of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Yale University
The Egyptian hieroglyphic script is one of the longest attested continuous uses of a writing system in world history. Between the late fourth century CE and the early nineteenth century, knowledge of the hieroglyphic script was lost, and the complexities of its mixed system of phonetic and ideographic signs delayed decipherment until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and the work of Jean-François Champollion and other pioneers. Egyptian hieroglyphic writing originated between 3300 and 3100 bce, on the basis of evidence attested in funerary and petroglyphic contexts; the early date of phonetic hieroglyphic writing in Upper Egypt confirms the independent development of the ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian writing systems. Rather than emerging abruptly and fully formed during the reign of a Dynasty 0 ruler c. 3250 bce, hieroglyphs appear to have a millennium-long “proto-history.” Decorated ceramics, small inscribed objects, and a large corpus of Upper Egyptian and Nubian rock art indicate that visual communication prior to true writing in Upper Egypt could express key early political and religious concepts, developing a form of “iconographic syntax.” Careful examination of predynastic iconography thus provides the conceptual missing link in the origins of writing in Northeastern Africa. The marginal environments of ancient Egypt—the Western Desert and Sinai Peninsula—also preserve evidence for the development of the world’s first alphabetic script, a writing system that emerged c. 1800 bce from contact between ancient Egyptian scribes and Semitic speakers who participated in Egyptian expeditions, with signs deriving from Egyptian scripts. During the 2nd century bce, the Meroitic script, with signs also originating in both cursive and hieroglyphic Egyptian scripts, developed in the ancient Nubian kingdom of Meroe and remained in use for as many as 700 years.