The invention of the written word was one of humankind’s greatest innovations. Not only did it transform communication and record-keeping, but it also altered the organization of societies and changed the nature of state administration.
However, if we look at Africa and ask where does the continent fits into humanity’s historical genesis of the written word, one enduring myth is that Africa lacks any legacy of the written word. Historical Africa has been effectively demoted to the oral tradition status (as if oral traditions are second-class citizens to the written word).
In previous times, experts believed in the monogenesis origins of writing, the notion that one civilization or one community of people invented writing- which was believed to have occurred in ancient Mesopotamia among the Sumerians, and then diffused culturally throughout the rest of the world (pretty much in line with theories about the invention of the wheel, agriculture, pastoralism, etc.).
But Mesoamerican scholars, experts who specialize in the history and cultures of Guatamala, Honduras, Belize, and parts of Mexico, uncovered scripts that confirmed writing had been independently invented in Central America among civilizations such as the Olmec, Aztec. Zapotec, Toltec, Teotihuacan, Mixtec, Maya, and others. In fact, experts suspect 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 Mesoamerica (by 500 BCE).
Through Ancient Egypt, however, the Western world shares an important legacy with the African continent (perhaps the greatest legacy Africa shares with the rest of humanity is that of being the “Cradle of Humanity” based on the discoveries of our hominid ancestors in East and Southern Africa). During the Fourth millennium BC, over 5,000 years ago, a form of writing from which nearly all modern scripts are genetically descended was developed somewhere in the Lower Nile Valley.
When the great chronicler of Antiquity, Herodotus, spoke about the magnificence of pharonic (dynastic) Egypt, and proclaimed, “nowhere are there so many marvelous things… so many works of unspeakable greatness”, he was undoubtedly reflecting upon, among other things, the Egyptian invention of hieroglyphics.
Egyptian Hieroglyphics was a formal writing system used by the ancient Egyptians that contained a combination of pictographs (e.g. ancient or prehistoric drawings or paintings found on rock walls) and ideographs (a graphic symbol that represents an idea or concept) that later evolved into a phonetic (linguistic) script. The process in which phonetic writing was born in ancient Egypt is often called the REBUS PRINCIPLE, using existing symbols, such as pictograms, purely for their sounds regardless of their meaning, to represent new words.
“Africa has contributed to the world many rich traditions of writing and graphic symbolism, from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and Saharan rock art, to the ingenious modern syllabaries and alphabets of the Vai and Bassa of West Africa. With such a long and distinguished history of writing, it is unfitting that a myth persists of Africa as a ‘historically illiterate’ continent ,” says Dr. Konrad Tuchscherer, an Associate Professor of History and Director of Africana Studies at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, and Co-Director of the Bamum Scripts and Archives Project at the Bamum palace in Foumban, capital of the Bamum Kingdom in Cameroon, West Africa.
The irony of the myth is that the Egyptian system from North Africa inspired scripts such as Hebrew and Arabic, and indirectly scripts such as Greek, Roman, and Cyrillic. In fact, all modern scripts, except Chinese and its offshoots are descended from Egyptian.”
Archeologists and historians have dated the origins of writing back to the Sumerians of Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) somewhere between 3400 and 3100 BCE. However, discoveries made over a generation ago have made some experts believe that Ancient Egypt was either quickest off the mark, or the development of writing occurred in both regions roughly around the same time period.
These discoveries were made by the late Egyptologist Gunter Dreyer, director of the German Archaeological Institute in Egypt, and his colleague Werner Kaiser first in 1988 and then again a decade later in 1998. The pair was re-excavating the pre-dynastic and early dynastic cemeteries of Umm el-Qa’ab in Abydos, a royal necropolis where early pharaohs including a certain King Scorpion I were entombed, about 540 kilometers south of Cairo.
The writings are line drawings of animals, plants, and mountains and came mainly from the tomb of “King Scorpion”. The hieroglyphics record linen and oil deliveries made over 5,000 years ago. In 1998, Dreyer would again discover writing on small ivory labels. These findings challenge the widely-held belief that the first people to write were the Sumerians of Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) sometime before 3000 BC.
Dreyer's Egyptian symbols
Even if future archeological research finds evidence that cuneiform did indeed appear first, the legacy of Egyptian hieroglyphics remains enduring.
“While the descendants of cuneiform died out, Egypt gave rise to Proto-Sinaitic scripts, which gave rise to alphabetic writing, and the modern likes of Hebrew, Arabic, and the Roman script. In fact, all modern scripts, except Chinese and its offshoots are descended from Egyptian," Tuchscherer points out.
But Egyptian hieroglyphics did not emerge like a Phoenix from the ashes (although it is quite possibly might have had a single ingenious Egyptian inventor or perhaps a committee of some sort). It evolved from what experts call a “highly codified African graphic systems”, which, even if not phonetic, were highly systematized and recorded as well as communicated information. Such systems—which included African rock art (there is evidence of rock carvings along the Nile terraces and in desert oases), geometric pottery motifs (in fact, the earliest known evidence of Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions appeared during the pre-dynastic period on Naqada III pottery vessels, dated to about 3200 BCE), cattle brands, weaving designs, scarification, and the like—existed not only in Upper Egypt (coterminous with the southern part of contemporary Egypt) but far to the south, which by the fourth millennium BC was engaging in robust exchanges with Egypt.
“Over the long run of northeastern African history, what emerges most strongly is the extent to which ancient Egypt’s culture grew from sub-Saharan African roots,” says historian Christopher Ehret of the University of California, Los Angeles.
According to Ehret, a leading scholar in African history and African historical linguistics, from the sixth to the fourth millennia BC the Saharo-Sahelian peoples far to the south made seminal contributions down the Nile into pre-dynastic Egypt. It is within this cauldron of cultural exchange that we can understand the early development of Egypt and the very environment that gave rise to hieroglyphs.
“Simply put, long before the emergence of Egyptian hieroglyphs, Africa had a wealth and diversity of graphic and plastic symbols that recorded and communicated information without being systematically related to language”, Ehret argues, “Such systems—knotted cords, tallies, rock art, pottery designs, etc.—were precursors to writing, and are often referred to as proto-writing.” These systems are among those that might have provided graphic inspiration for Egyptian hieroglyphs,”
African rock art and decorative pottery designs unearthed by archaeologists offer a glimpse of systematized graphic symbolism in Africa south of the Sahara in more remote times. For example, in the Inland Niger Delta region of West
Africa, painted and plastic motifs follow a “grammar” of use—an established method of arranging symbols, which often had both decorative and communicative purposes.
Pictographic and ideographic symbols are also found in weaving and dyeing traditions. The most famous of these are found on bogolanfini, a mud-dyed cloth traditionally made by Bamana women in Mali. The geometric designs and patterns have specific names and convey different levels of meaning.
Other prominent graphic systems from Africa include gı˜candi symbols employed by the Kikuyu (Kenya), adinkra cloth symbols among the Akan (Ghana), elaborate nsibidi symbols among the Igbo, Ibibio, and Ejagham (Nigeria), and cosmographic systems employed among the Dogon (Mali) and Kongo (Angola). These graphic systems are still in use today and they are historically important not only in Africa but in the Americas as well, where they influenced the creation of diasporic systems of graphic imagery operated by peoples of African descent in places like Cuba, St. Vincent, Trinidad, Suriname, and even in the southeastern United States among the Gullah.
However, despite Egypt’s great gift to humanity, early Egypt was, and still is in some circles, seen not as an African civilization, but one belonging exclusively to the Mediterranean (European) world. The reality is that the country is a transcontinental, or intercontinental, entity like Russia or Turkey whose geography embraces other continents and thus other cultural and historical traditions. It is an African civilization that has strong Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Arab heritages. persists
But despite these realities, the myth still persist that Africa and Africans are lacking a legacy of the written word and that African societies have had little to no impact on a global scale when it comes to the written word. But this simply isn’t true, because even in the modern era original African scripts were still being invented.
The Archives du Palais des Rois Bamum (APRB), which is located at the Bamum palace in Foumban, the capital of the Bamum Kingdom in rural Cameroon, houses the largest and most important collection of writings in indigenous African scripts anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa.
In fact, it is this collection kick-started the Bamum Scripts and Archives Project, which began in 2006 and continues today (the current Bamum King, El Hadj Sultan Ibrahim Mbombo Njoya has overseen every aspect of the project since its inception).
The Bamum script in its earliest form was created in 1896, years prior to the arrival of the first Europeans to the Bamum kingdom. It has letters for writing and numerals for counting. Its modern form, referred to as A-ka-u-ku, is still used today.
The project has made numerous scientific discoveries over the years. Konrad Tuchscherer, Nji Nchare, and colleagues have uncovered many previously unknown pharmacopeia, an official publication containing a list of medicinal drugs with their effects and directions for their use, that are currently being studied by traditional scholars. Some of this knowledge had been lost from the time of King Njoya (who died in exile in 1933). The researchers have also uncovered an important collection of maps of the palace and Bamum Kingdom written in the Bamum script, which dwarf the earlier collection in the palace.
The researchers have also discovered farming calendars, some of which are elegantly designed in circular form with artistic illustrations of the cosmos. They have identified books dealing with mathematical concepts, building on the Bamum tradition of number writing.
“Very few people appreciate the fact that the Bamum are one of the few peoples in history who invented their own original number writing system,” says Tuchscherer.
“The fact that people don't pay as much attention to a number writing system as a phonetic system to transcribe language has perhaps something to do with the belief -- especially in the western world -- that the alphabet is above all else the key to humanity and culture. As a result, the fact that the Bamum have this very interesting and original system for numeration is often overlooked.”