The early writing systems of the late 4th millennium BC are not considered a sudden invention. Rather, they were based on ancient traditions of symbol systems that cannot be classified as writing proper, but have many characteristics strikingly reminiscent of writing. These systems may be described as proto-writing. They used ideographic and/or early mnemonic symbols to convey information yet were probably devoid of direct linguistic content. These systems emerged in the early Neolithic period, as early as the 7th millennium BC, if not earlier (Kamyana Mohyla).
Notably the Vinča signs show an evolution of simple symbols beginning in the 7th millennium, gradually increasing in complexity throughout the 6th millennium and culminating in the Tărtăria tablets of the 5th millennium with their rows of symbols carefully aligned, evoking 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.
In 2003, 6th millennium BC radiocarbon dated symbols Jiahu Script carved into tortoise shells were discovered in China. The shells were found buried with human remains in 24 Neolithic graves unearthed at Jiahu, Henan province, northern China. According to some archaeologists, the writing on the shells had similarities to the 2nd millennium BC Oracle bone script. Others, however, 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 4th millennium BC Indus script may similarly constitute proto-writing, possibly already influenced by the emergence of writing in Mesopotamia.
The "Slavic runes" mentioned by a few medieval authors may also have been a system of proto-writing. The Quipu of the Incas (sometimes called "talking knots") may have been of a similar nature. A historical example is the system of pictographs invented by Uyaquk before he developed the Yugtun syllabary.
By definition, history begins with written records; evidence of human culture without writing is the realm of prehistory (see Writing and historicity, below). However, the "origin of writing is no longer a mystery."
The evolution of writing was a process involving economic practice and necessity in the Ancient Near East. Archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat determined the link between previously uncategorized clay "tokens" and the first known writing, proto-cuneiform. The clay tokens were used to represent commodities, and perhaps even units of time spent in labor, and their number and type became more complex as civilization advanced. A degree of complexity was reached when over a hundred different kinds of tokens had to be accounted for, and tokens were wrapped and fired in clay, with markings to indicate the kind of tokens inside. These markings soon replaced the tokens themselves, and the clay envelopes were demonstrably the prototype for clay writing tablets.
The original Mesopotamian writing system (ca. 3500 BC) derives from this method of keeping accounts, and by the end of the 4th millennium BC, had evolved into using a triangular-shaped stylus pressed into soft clay ("cuneiform" writing). Thus the invention of the first writing systems is roughly contemporary with the beginning of the Bronze Age in the last half of the 4th millennium BC in Sumer.
The earliest forms of writing were logographic in nature, based on pictographic and ideographic elements. However, by the middle of the 3rd millennium BC, the Sumerians had developed a syllabic adjunct to their script, reflecting the phonology and syntax of the spoken Sumerian language. This logo-syllabic script was soon adopted by Akkadian and Eblaite speakers for their own languages, and later by Hittite and Ugaritic speakers.
While it is possible that Egyptian writing is an example of trans-cultural diffusion from their trading partners in Mesopotamia, the Egyptians did not borrow Mesopotamian written symbols. Instead, they used their own artistic iconography. Archaic Egyptian hieroglyphs are attested in the 3100-BC Narmer Palette, and more widespread literacy appears by the mid 3rd millennium (the Pyramid Texts). In southern Egypt, Günter Dreyer discovered records of linen and oil deliveries which have been carbon-dated to between 3300 BCE and 3200 BCE, predating the Dynastic Period. This find challenges the prevailing view that the first people to write were the Sumerians of Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) sometime before 3000 BCE.
The Indus "script" appeared ca. 2600 BC and outlasted the decline of the Indus Valley Civilization around 1700 BC. However, all records are extremely short, and it is not clear that it was a true writing system.
The Chinese script, dating from around the 12th century BC (late Shang Dynasty) was graphically independent of the Middle Eastern scripts, though as with the case of Egyptian, trans-cultural diffusion may have played a role.
The pre-Columbian scripts dating from ca. the 3rd century BC in Mesoamerica, of which only Mayan is known to have been true writing, had independent origins from the Old World. If rongorongo of Easter Island was a true script, it was likely also an independent development.
Almost all writing systems in use in the world today are ultimately descended either from the Chinese script or from the Egyptian-derived Semitic alphabets (see Genealogy of scripts derived from Proto-Sinaitic).
The original Sumerian writing system derives from a system of clay tokens used to represent commodities. By the end of the 4th millennium BC, this 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. Round-stylus and sharp-stylus writing was gradually replaced about 2700-2500 BC by writing using a wedge-shaped stylus (hence the term cuneiform), at first only for logograms, but developed to include phonetic elements by the 29th century BC. About 2600 BC cuneiform began to represent syllables of the Sumerian language. Finally, cuneiform writing became a general purpose writing system for logograms, syllables, and numbers. From the 26th century BC, this script was adapted to the Akkadian language, and from there to others such as Hurrian, and Hittite. Scripts similar in appearance to this writing system include those for Ugaritic and Old Persian.
There have recently been discoveries of tortoise-shell carvings dating back to c. 6000 BC, like Jiahu Script, Banpo Script, but whether or not the carvings are of sufficient complexity to qualify as writing is under debate. If it is deemed to be a written language, writing in China will predate Mesopotamian cuneiform, long acknowledged as the first appearance of writing, by some 2000 years, however it is more likely that the inscriptions are rather a form of proto-writing, similar to the contemporary European Vinca script. Undisputed evidence of writing in China dates from ca. 1600 BC.
ima The Middle Bronze Age Indus script which dates back to the early Harrapan phase of around 3000 BC has not yet been deciphered. It is unclear whether it should be considered an example of proto-writing (a system of symbols or similar), or if it is actual writing of the logographic-syllabic type of the other Bronze Age writing systems. Mortimer Wheeler recognises the style of writing as boustrophedon, where "this stability suggests a precarious maturity".
The Phoenician alphabet is simply the Proto-Canaanite alphabet as it was continued into the Iron Age (conventionally taken from a cut-off date of 1050 BC). This alphabet gave rise to the Aramaic and Greek, as well as, likely via Greek transmission, to various Anatolian and Old Italic (including the Latin) alphabets in the 8th century BC. The Greek alphabet for the first time introduces vowel signs. The Brahmic family of India probably originated via Aramaic contacts from ca. the 5th century BC. The Greek and Latin alphabets in the early centuries of the Common Era gave rise to several European scripts such as the Runes and the Gothic and Cyrillic alphabets while the Aramaic alphabet evolved into the Hebrew, Syriac and Arabic abjads and the South Arabian alphabet gave rise to the Ge'ez abugida.