Human beings are nothing if not creative. Now it seems that the cradle of civilisation lay in Java, where scientists have identified what may be the earliest example of writing.
The extent to which prehistoric people were capable of speech is unknown. Early studies suggested that by 300,000 to 200,000 years ago the people now known as Homo erectus (one of the ancestors of Homo sapiens) had reached a stage when physiologically and psychologically they were equipped for speech. Most specialists credit Neanderthals who lived some 250,000 years ago with speech abilities not radically different from those of modern people.
But did writing follow speech – which would seem logical – or could it have preceded it? In the 1920s, excavating a rubbish heap in Ur, Mesopotamia, archaeologists discovered a letter written about 2,000 BCE by a merchant called Nanni to a business associate called Ea-nasir. The letter was written in cuneiform, named for the shape of its word signs and a direct descendant of the picture script invented by the Sumerian people about 3,100 BCE. Trading goods must have been a spur to devising a way of keeping accurate records and accounts.
In 1961 the Tartaria tablets were discovered in Romania, inscribed with symbols and dating back to around 5,300 BCE. In 1993 the Dispilio Tablet was unearthed at a Neolithic lakeshore settlement in Greece and carbon-dated to more or less the same period. And bones engraved with groups of lines or dots and going back just 20,000 to 30,000 years have been found in France from a period when Cro-Magnon men and women lived there. But lines and dots do not constitute written forms of words.
Writing is a shift towards using a picture or a symbol to represent not the object itself but the sound of its name: in other words, from pictorial writing to phonetic writing. Anthropologists seeking the smoking gun of this shift may have found it in Indonesia.
At the end of the 19th century, Dutch anatomist and geologist Eugene Dubois (discoverer of Java man – the first known fossil of Homo erectus) collected hundreds of ancient freshwater mussel shells on the banks of the Solo River in East Java. At the time it went unnoticed that one of the specimens had been written on. Recently scientists have been re-examining the shells and found that they date back 430,000 to 540,000 years. This makes the one with the writing much older than any of the previous finds in Greece, Romania, or Mesopotamia.
So far, experts have been unable to decipher the writing, but speculation is rife that a lot can be learned from this seashell cast up on the shores of time. Homo erectus or Java man was previously believed only to drink coffee. The annals of human evolution may now have to be rewritten.