13 June 2024 The Future is the Product of the Past

Rare African Script Offers Clues to the Evolution of Writing Systems

The world’s very first invention of writing took place over 5000 years ago in the Middle East, before it was reinvented in China and Central America. Today, almost all human activities—from education to political systems and computer code—rely on this technology.

But despite its impact on daily life, we know little about how writing evolved in its earliest years. With so few sites of origin, the first traces of writing are fragmentary or missing altogether.

In a study just published in Current Anthropology, a team of researchers at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, showed that writing very quickly becomes ‘compressed’ for efficient reading and writing.

To arrive at this insight they turned to a rare African writing system that has fascinated outsiders since the early 19th century.

The first page of Vai manuscript MS17817 from the British Library [Photo: The British Library]

“The Vai script of Liberia was created from scratch in about 1834 by eight completely illiterate men who wrote in ink made from crushed berries,” says lead author Dr. Piers Kelly, now at the University of New England, Australia. The Vai language had never before been written down.

According to Vai teacher Bai Leesor Sherman, the script was always taught informally from a literate teacher to a single apprentice student. It remains so successful that today it is even used to communicate pandemic health messages.

“Because of its isolation, and the way it has continued to develop up until the present day, we thought it might tell us something important about how writing evolves over short spaces of time,” says Kelly.

“There’s a famous hypothesis that letters evolve from pictures to abstract signs. But there are also plenty of abstract letter-shapes in early writing. We predicted, instead, that signs will start off as relatively complex and then become simpler across new generations of writers and readers.”

The transformation of indigenous symbols into Vai letters [Credit: Momolu Massaquoi (1911)]
The transformation of indigenous symbols into Vai letters. © Momolu Massaquoi (1911). Public Domain

The team scrutinized manuscripts in the Vai language from archives in Liberia, the United States, and Europe. By analyzing year-by-year changes in its 200 syllabic letters, they traced the entire evolutionary history of the script from 1834 onwards. Applying computational tools for measuring visual complexity, they found that the letters really did become visually simpler with each passing year.

“The original inventors were inspired by dreams to design individual signs for each syllable of their language. One represents a pregnant woman, another is a chained slave, others are taken from traditional emblems. When these signs were applied to writing spoken syllables, then taught to new people, they became simpler, more systematic, and more similar to one another,” says Kelly.

This pattern of simplification can be observed over much longer time scales for ancient writing systems as well.

“Visual complexity is helpful if you’re creating a new writing system. You generate more clues and greater contrasts between signs, which helps illiterate learners. This complexity later gets in the way of efficient reading and reproduction, so it fades away,” says Kelly.

Elsewhere in West Africa, illiterate inventors reverse-engineered writing for languages spoken in Mali and Cameroon, while new writing systems are still being invented in Nigeria and Senegal. In response to the study, Nigerian philosopher Henry Ibekwe commented: “African indigenous scripts remain a vast, untapped repository of semiotic and symbolic information. Many questions remain to be asked.”

Source: Max-Planck Institute

Related Articles

Bronze Age burial chamber discovered on Dartmoor, England

14 May 2024

14 May 2024

Excitement has been felt among archaeologists over the discovery of a Bronze Age burial chamber on Dartmoor, which may provide...

Danish museum says Vikings had stained glass Windows

15 October 2023

15 October 2023

New research shows that  Viking Age windows were created using stained glass in the 9th century, contrary to popular belief...

A Rare Late Neolithic Period Seal found in Domuztepe Mound

25 August 2022

25 August 2022

A rare Late Neolithic Seal was discovered during the 2022 excavations of the Domuztepe Mound (Domuztepe Höyük), located on the...

Archaeologists uncovered a ‘golden tomb’ during excavations in Armenia

26 March 2023

26 March 2023

A team of archaeologists made up of Polish and Armenian scientists has discovered a “golden tomb” containing two skeletons in...

Archaeological Finding Traces Chinese Tea Culture Back To 400 BC

7 February 2022

7 February 2022

An archaeological team from Shandong University, east China’s Shandong Province, has found the earliest known tea remains in the world...

In Turkey’s Gedikkaya Cave, a stone figurine was discovered inside a 16,500-year-old votive pit

17 December 2022

17 December 2022

A stone figurine was discovered in a 16500-year-old votive pit belonging to the Epi-paleolithic period, the transition phase from the...

A unique 2,800-year-old ivory-decorated piece was discovered in the Ancient City of Hattusa

13 November 2023

13 November 2023

An ivory-decorated piece, estimated to be approximately 2,800 years old, was found during the archaeological excavation in the Hattusa Ancient...

1,500-year-old Byzantine artifacts found under a peach orchard in Turkey’s Iznik

27 January 2023

27 January 2023

In the world-famous historical city of Iznik, which was the capital of four civilizations, a farmer found coins and historical...

4,000-year-old settlement found during Balasore town India

9 July 2021

9 July 2021

A 4,000-year-old settlement and ancient artifacts have been discovered in the Balasore district, India. The Odisha Institute for Maritime and...

Zeus Temple’s entrance was found in western Turkey’s Aizanoi Ancient City

31 July 2021

31 July 2021

During recent digs, the monumental entrance gate of the Zeus Temple sanctuary in the ancient city of Aizanoi, located in...

Climate has influenced the growth of our bodies and our brain

8 July 2021

8 July 2021

Over 300 fossils from the genus Homo have been measured for body and brain size by an interdisciplinary team of...

Archaeologists are deciphering Roman history along Dere Street, one of the oldest roadways in Britain

17 July 2021

17 July 2021

Final archaeological finds uncovered as part of a major road improvement in the north of England have shed new insight...

5,000-Year-Old public eating space with food still inside discovered in ancient Lagash

2 February 2023

2 February 2023

Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a public eating space that’s nearly 5,000 years old in southern Iraq, the University...

The World’s Oldest Smiling Water Flask with Emoji will be on display

4 July 2021

4 July 2021

After the collapse of the Hittite Empire, the Late Hittite States was established in Anatolia and Syria. One of these...

Rare textiles and dwellings discovered in the submerged Neolithic settlement near Rome

6 June 2023

6 June 2023

Underwater archaeologists have discovered rare, well-preserved textiles, basketry, and cordage from the early Neolithic period in an area near Rome,...