The 7 Oldest Known Writings Ever Discovered

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Archeologists estimate that humans began using cave drawings to communicate events in their lives as early as 40,000 years ago, a true system of writing didn’t emerge until around 3500 BC when civilizations in and around Mesopotamia began to develop one. More than 5,000 years later, plenty of clay tablets still survive as the oldest verified evidence of a writing system. While the Tărtăria tablets – uncovered in 1961 in a Romanian village – date back to 5500 BC, contain something that appears to be script, there has been no confirmation that it’s an organized style of writing. Here are the 7 oldest writings that are known to be actual writing systems.

7. Palermo Stone

Writing System: Egyptian hieroglyphs

How old is it? – It dates back to around 2300 BC

Where did it originate? – Parts of it were found in Memphis (Egypt, not Tennessee), but nobody knows exactly where the rest came from.

Current Location: It is housed at the Regional Archeological Museum Antonio Salinas in Palermo, Italy.

While not much is known about the Palermo Stone, it is believed to be the oldest surviving text in Ancient Egypt. It is a crucial text as it contains all sorts of information about the first 5 ruling dynasties, including the names of the pharaohs, important events that occurred during their reigns, and even details related to floods, taxation, festivals and war. The fact that it lists the names of rulers and their family members is important since it is the only record of their existence.

6. The Reforms of Urukagina

Writing System: Cuneiform

How old is it? – It dates back to around 2500 BC

Where did it originate? – Girsu (today’s Tell Telloh, Iraq).

Current Location: The Louvre Museum, Paris, France

Ukukagina was a ruler in ancient Mesopotamia known for fighting corruption and creating the oldest known legal code, which is written on two cones. Among other things, this writing curbs the powers of priests and large landowners, details how to assist the poor and eldery, and contains legal remedies for murder, theft and other crimes. It also imposed consequences on those who commit bribery or illegal seize land. In addition, it placed a ban on debt-related slavery.

5. Instructions of Shuruppak

Writing System: Cuneiform

How old is it? – It dates back to around 2600 BC

Where did it originate? – Bismaya, Adab (Iraq)

Current Location: Oriental Institute Museum, Chicago, Illinois

The Instructions of Shuruppak are among the oldest known sources of Sumerian wisdom literature, and the entire thing has been translated into English. The text contains pearls of wisdom from a man in Shuruppak addressed to his son. Some of it touches upon lessons on practicality, such as “you should not plough a field at a path” since, duh, people will walk all over it. “Never vouch for someone” because if they end up not being who they seem, you’ll be just as screwed. My personal favorite is “Don’t buy a braying donkey” because it will end up being a huge pain in the ass. There are also instructions on morality.

4. Kesh Temple Hymn

Writing System: Cuneiform

How old is it? – It dates back to 2600 BC

Where did it originate? – Nippur, Sumer (today’s Nuffar, Iraq)

Current Location: Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland

Along with the aforementioned Instructions of Shuruppak, the Kesh Temple Hymm is considered one of the oldest surviving pieces of literature in the world. Written on clay tablets, the text provides a description of the ancient city of Kesh, which the god Enlil praises for building a temple in which to worship the gods. The writings also mention that the text itself is the work of the gods, which therefore provides it with legitimacy and purpose.

3. Proto-Elamite Tablets

Writing System: Proto-Elamite

How old is it? – It dates back to somewhere between 3200-2900 BC

Where did it originate? – Susa, Persia (today’s Shush, Iran)

Current Location: Louvre Museum (among other places)

The Proto-Elamite writing system remains undeciphered, in spite of the fact that experts have access to more than 1,600 clay tablets containing this these mysterious writings. Because nobody has idea what the tablets mean, there’s not a whole lot more to say about it. Good news though: in 2013, the super smart folks the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford took high resolution scans of the text using the latest technology, which means at some point we might be able to solve this riddle.

2. Narmer Palette

Writing System: Egyptian hieroglyphs

How old is it? – It dates back to between 3200-3000 BC

Where did it originate? – Temple of Horus, Nekhen (today’s Aswan Governate, Egypt)

Current Location: Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Regarded as one of the greatest Ancient Egyptian archeological finds, the Narmer Palette is a stone tablet that is fully intact and tells of the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt by King Narmer. King Narmer is also known as Menes, who is confirmed to have been the very first ruler of the Ancient Egyptian Empire. On one side of the palette, the king is wearing a white crown that signifies his reign over Upper Egypt while the other side shows him with deshert, or red crown, indicating his rule over Lower Egypt as well.

1. Kish Tablet

Writing System: Proto-cuneiform

How old is it? – 3500 BC

Where did it originate? – Kish, Sumer (today’s Tell al-Uhaymir, Iraq)

Current Location: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK

While there are many tablets across the world that are vying for the title “World’s Oldest,” the Kish Tablet is the only one that can be confirmed to be the oldest. It is pictographic, meaning the people hadn’t yet reached a stage of proper writing. Furthermore, the message on the tablet has not be deciphered, although it could be related to astronomy.



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