The Write Stuff

Humans have been on the earth for millions of years. However, the things and ideas that we think of as constituting humanity have only come about quite recently. What sets us apart from the other creatures with whom we share this earth? Why do we create, why do we communicate, what do we construct, why do we contemplate the infinite? This year we examine these significant questions about the very nature of our existence and which continue to define our story.

Our first event addresses the origins of writing.

Did you know that writing actually began with counting?

Once we humans decided to settle down rather than roam the planet, we began to accumulate more things than we could carry. We needed a way to keep track of all of that stuff. It wasn’t long before we developed the concepts of numbers and counting. The next leap occurred when we converted that knowledge to the invention of a system of writing. Prof. Denise Schmandt-Besserat is one of the world’s leading experts on the origin of writing and counting. She is most well-known for her ground-breaking theory that that the cuneiform script invented in the Near East in the late fourth millennium B.C.—the world’s oldest known system of writing—derived from counting.

Denise Schmandt Besserat
The story of her discovery is this: Over the years, archaeological digs in the Mideast uncovered thousands of small clay objects, dating from as far back as 7500 BCE. These objects and their meaning and use were a puzzle.


Denise Schmandt-Besserat discovered that these mystery objects were counters. Their use evolved over thousands of years from simple tokens to more complex tokens with markings. She learned that each counter shape had meaning as a specific quantity of a specific commodity. For example, a cone stood for a small quantity of grain and a sphere for a large quantity of grain. Using different shapes of counters to count different objects is evidence of concrete counting, meaning that each category of items was counted with special number words specific to that category. There is a hint of concrete counting in our own society in our preference for phrases such as “a pair of shoes” or “a couple of days” over “two shoes” or “two days.” However, we almost always use abstract counting with our abstract numbers “two,” “three,” “four,” … that can be used to count any item. After 3300 BCE, the tokens were sometimes stored in clay envelopes with their imprints made on the envelope’s surface to make visible the number and shapes of tokens enclosed.


According to Schmandt-Besserat, the transformation of three-dimensional tokens to two-dimensional signs to communicate information was the beginning of writing. Eventually, the tokens were replaced by signs made by their impressions onto solid balls of clay, or tablets. These impressions evolved to become cuneiform writing.


Writing became a means for us to vanquish mortality and effects how we communicate, remember, dream, explore our world and even the way we think. The cognitive effects of writing on the human brain are a continuing interest of study by Prof. Schmandt-Besserat whose work has been recognized internationally by the scientific community. Her book, How Writing Came About, was listed by American Scientist as one of the 100 books that shaped science in the 20th century.

We’re grateful for the support of KPMG, an accounting firm, who helped make this event possible.