Proto-writing consists of visible marks communicating limited information.
Such systems emerged from earlier traditions of symbol systems in the early Neolithic, as early as the 7th millennium BCE.
They used ideogram or early mnemonic symbols or both to represent a limited number of concepts, in contrast to true writing systems, which record the natural language of the writer.
In 2003, tortoise
shells were found in 24 Neolithic graves excavated at Jiahu
province, northern China, with
from the 7th millennium BCE. According to some archaeologists, the Jiahu symbols
carved on the shells had similarities to the late 2nd millennium BCE oracle bone script.
Others have dismissed this claim as insufficiently substantiated, claiming that simple geometric designs such as those found on the Jiahu shells cannot be linked to early writing.
The Vinča signs or the Vinča symbols (6th to 5th millennia BCE, present-day Serbia) are an evolution of simple symbols beginning in the 7th millennium BCE, gradually increasing in complexity throughout the 6th millennium and culminating in the Tărtăria tablets of ca. 5300 BCE;
[Haarmann, Harald: "Geschichte der Schrift", C.H. Beck, 2002, , p. 20] it has been argued that the alignment of the symbols evokes the impression of a "text".
The Dispilio Tablet of the late 6th millennium is similar. The hieroglyphic scripts of the Ancient Near East (Egyptian, Sumerian proto-Cuneiform and Cretan) seamlessly emerge from such symbol systems, so that it is difficult to say at what point precisely writing emerges from proto-writing. Adding to this difficulty is the fact that very little is known about the symbols' meanings.
Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age
The transition from proto-writing to the earliest fully developed writing systems took place in the late 4th to early 3rd millennia BCE in the Fertile Crescent
The Kish tablet
, dated to 3500 BCE, reflects the stage of "proto-cuneiform", when what would become the cuneiform script
was still in the proto-writing stage.
By the end of the 4th millennium BCE, this symbol system had evolved into a method of keeping accounts, using a round-shaped stylus impressed into soft clay at different angles for recording numbers. This was gradually augmented with pictographic
writing using a sharp stylus to indicate what was being counted.
The transitional stage to a writing system proper takes place in the Jemdet Nasr period (31st to 30th centuries BCE).
A similar development took place in the genesis of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. Various scholars believe that Egyptian hieroglyphs "came into existence a little after Sumerian script
, and ... probably were ... invented under the influence of the latter ...",
[Geoffrey Sampson, Writing Systems: a Linguistic Introduction, Stanford University Press, 1990, p. 78.]
although it is pointed out and held that "the evidence for such direct influence remains flimsy" and that "a very credible argument can also be made for the independent development of writing in Egypt ..."
[Simson Najovits, Egypt, Trunk of the Tree: A Modern Survey of an Ancient Land, Algora Publishing, 2004, pp. 55–56.]
(See further Egyptian hieroglyphs).
During the Bronze Age
, the cultures of the Ancient Near East are known to have had fully developed writing systems, while the marginal territories affected by the Bronze Age, such as Europe, India and China, remained in the stage of proto-writing.
The Chinese script emerged from proto-writing in the Chinese Bronze Age, during about the 14th to 11th centuries BCE (Oracle bone script), while symbol systems native to Europe and India are extinct and replaced by descendants of the Semitic abjad during the Iron Age.
Indian Bronze Age
The so-called Indus script is a symbol system used during the 3rd millennium BCE in the Indus Valley Civilization.
European Bronze Age
With the exception of the Aegean (Linear A
, Cretan hieroglyphs), the early writing systems of the Near East did not reach Bronze Age Europe. The earliest writing systems of Europe arise in the Iron Age, derived from the Phoenician alphabet.
However, there are number of interpretations regarding symbols found on artefacts of the European Bronze Age which amount to interpreting them as an indigenous tradition of proto-writing. Of special interest in this context are the Bronze Ages cultures derived from the Beaker culture in the second half of the 2nd millennium BCE. Interpretations of the markings of the bronze associated with the Urnfield culture, especially the large number of so-called "knob-sickles" discovered in the Frankleben hoard, are discussed by Sommerfeld (1994).
[Christoph Sommerfeld, "Die Sichelmarken" in: Gerätegeld Sichel. Studien zur monetären Struktur bronzezeitlicher Horte im nördlichen Mitteleuropa, Vorgeschichtliche Forschungen vol. 19, Berlin/New York, 1994, , pp. 207–264.]
Sommerfeld favours an interpretation of these symbols as numerals associated with a [[lunar calendar]].
Even after the Bronze Age, several cultures have gone through a period of using systems of proto-writing as an intermediate stage before the adoption of writing proper. The "Slavic runes" (7th/8th century) mentioned by a few medieval authors may have been such a system. The Quipu
of the Incas
(15th century), sometimes called "talking knots", may have been of a similar nature. Another example is the system of pictographs invented by Uyaquk
before the development of the Yugtun script
African Iron Age
is a system of symbols indigenous to what is now southeastern Nigeria
. While there remains no commonly accepted exact date of origin, most researchers agree that use of the symbols date back well before 500 BCE.
There are thousands of Nsibidi symbols which were used on anything from
and to wall designs. Nsibidi is used for the Ekoid languages
and Igboid languages
, and the Aro people
are known to write Nsibidi messages on the bodies of their messengers.