The Origin of Writing

by John Barclay-Morton



Concerning The Standard Academic Model

“A very broad and important class of triadics characters [consist of] representations. A representation is that character of a thing by virtue of which, for the production of a certain mental effect, it may stand in place of another thing."

Charles Sanders Peirce
A New List of Categories
10 - v 1899 - C.P. 1-564

Where There Be Dragons

a pterodactyl considered as the source of dragon mythology

The Worlds Oldest Written Joke

Read to the bottom of this page to find out what that is!

Standard Academic Model

Introduction

There is no denying the major role writing has played in human culture. By definition, history itself is directly linked to writing: those places and times where humans lived prior to the invention of writing are defined as being “prehistoric”; and indeed, people who lived without a written culture are themselves considered “prehistoric”. When it comes to how we visualize civilization itself, much hinges upon the presence (or absence) of writing.

The kind of writing you are reading right now has a very specific origin, which is quite well documented. Generally, when people think about how phonetic writing — which shows the sounds of speech through symbols — evolved, they look to an origin in the Near East. Other forms of writing evolved elsewhere; but where those forms of writing started, and how they developed, has not been clearly discerned or well documented to date. As a result of the extensive documentation outlining its origin, one particular form of writing — phonetic writing, such as is written using an alphabet — is generally accepted as being representative for any and all forms of writing.

This is in fact neither necessarily, nor actually, so; and, there are serious implications that follow from assuming it to be the case.

Nevertheless: even though the development of phonetic writing does not establish a model which all systems of writing must necessarily follow ‘to the letter’; the documentation that has been established, in outlining how such a system of writing evolved, can provide indications of various developmental stages that might also be important in the evolution of other writing systems.

Overview

The developmental path of the most widely known form of writing (phonetic) has been extensively documented. One researcher who has been particularly incisive in her analysis of this is Denise Schmandt-Besserat. Her exceptionally detailed examination of how writing evolved in the Near East meticulously traces this path: from its representational beginnings in what was basically a system of accounting (where clay tokens paralleled the place taken by physical goods during trade); to the clay envelopes that held groups of tokens, with the outlines of those tokens pressed into the still-wet clay of the envelope before it was sealed; to the clay tablets that replaced these tokens, with characteristic markings instead incised onto these flat surfaces; to groups of symbols being used for the names of people — which led to the establishment of phonetic writing, where symbols represented sounds rather than physical goods that were being 'held to account' in trade.

clay tokens, inscribed symbols, and cuneiform: the evolution of phonetic writing

Schmandt-Besserat notes, however, that other systems of writing which did not develop from this Near Eastern point of origin have not been well documented as to how they came into being:

“Writing is humankind's principal technology for collecting, manipulating, storing, retrieving, communicating and disseminating information. Writing may have been invented independently three times in different parts of the world: in the Near East, China and Mesoamerica. In what concerns this last script, it is still obscure how symbols and glyphs used by the Olmecs, whose culture flourished along the Gulf of Mexico ca 600 to 500 BC, reappeared in the classical Maya art and writing of 250-900 AD as well as in other Mesoamerican cultures (Marcus 1992). The earliest Chinese inscriptions, dated to the Shang Dynasty, c. 1400–1200 BC, consist of oracle texts engraved on animal bones and turtle shells (Bagley 2004). The highly abstract and standardized signs suggest prior developments, which are presently undocumented.

"Of these three writing systems, therefore, only the earliest, the Mesopotamian cuneiform script, invented in Sumer, present-day Iraq, c. 3200 BC, can be traced without any discontinuity over a period of 10,000 years, from a prehistoric antecedent to the present-day alphabet [Schmandt-Besserat: The Evolution of Writing; pgs. 1–2].”

It will be my contention that the glyphic writing systems which emerged in China and Mesoamerica share a common point-of-origin, in the form of that image writing native to North America which I am here documenting.

In any event, many of the stages in the developmental processes Schmandt-Besserat documented (through a process she describes as “cognitive archaeology”), with reference to the evolution of phonetic writing, can be seen to be at least inferentially influential in the development of the other systems of writing she mentions. By way of example, several points of comparison can be discerned through an analysis of the form of image writing I have been documenting. As Schmandt-Besserat stresses:

“Cognitive archaeology makes it clear that the immense value of the token system was to bring mankind, in the course of its millennia long development, to the level of abstraction necessary for literacy and civilization [Schmandt-Besserat: Tokens and Writing: the Cognitive Development; pg. 154].”

Certainly, as with any form of writing, it is possible to discern and document processes of abstraction inherent in the form of image writing I have been studying — and in doing so, to outline significant points of comparison between this form of writing and those forms of phonetic writing which are now used extensively around the world.

Definitions

It may come as a surprise to some that the idea of “cognitive archaeology” is not limited to the field of archaeology. As a concept, such an approach is also integral to the field of post-structural philosophy (my area of specialization), as demonstrated by such fundamental texts as Michel Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge. As with other philosophers holding firm ground upon the history of those concepts found within their field, Foucault examined through numerous innovative investigations the ways in which ideas can change over time, as documented through written texts that originated in different time periods. Of course, such an approach can only be applied as far back as we have written texts to consult. Schmandt-Besserat’s work with cognitive archaeology pushes that approach back about as far as it can function with regard to writing, while recognizing that material production itself can be incisively indicative of cognitive development. Indeed, one approach to linguistic analysis pioneered by the practicing psychoanalyst Félix Guattari considers the role that the physical properties of intentionally produced objects can play, in a conceptual context prior to the application of signification within language:

non-signifying semiologies as based upon material substrates through processes of substantiation

If we are: 1) trying to push our historical grasp of how concepts relevant to this study arise, toward a time before writing actually emerges; and, we are: 2) seeking to find a ground which is based broadly enough to encompass writing-in-general (rather than just one particular kind of writing); then, we need to: 3) find some comparative principle that will allow us to apply an interpretive methodology which is capable of discerning the contrasting differential parameters making each form of writing distinct in its own right. In approaching image writing, our first inclination might be to try and link objects directly with the thoughts they would seem to implicate — much as we naturally link words with objects. This immediately places us upon suspect ground, however, in that we cannot assume our use of language approximates that of any language to which we no longer have access; and similarly, we cannot assume any specific artifact would engage the same subjective responses we might have from within our modern culture.

Guattari's approach suggests a different path forward: in considering how those who crafted stone tools viewed their materials at hand, we can immediately see that any initial piece of rock chosen for crafting a tool would at first glance be considered simply “matter”; that is, relatively undifferentiated beyond being physically solid. In the course of crafting a tool, however, the various qualities of the stone would be considered and utilized in creating the tool: the balance, the planes of cleavage, the friability, and so on. It is this process of ascertaining material qualities that constitutes the conceptual shift from considering something as undifferentiated “matter”, to viewing the same material in terms of its substantive qualities — to considering that "matter" as a “substance”.

We can roughly term this process as “substantiation”; and in the context of producing instances of image writing, this term takes on added nuances: as a process which is undertaken in the substantiation of a craftsperson’s memory, as a making manifest of their experience through substantiating the nature of those interactions in the world around themselves which they have witnessed.

Note also that Guattari describes the linguistic functions that are grounded in such interactions as being a-signifying and anasemantic: they are not characterized by meaning, as processes of (phonetic) signification are; rather, they are distinguished by functionalities and, as such, are more conducive to grammatological analysis. This distinction allows us to avoid a major pitfall inherent in phonetic forms of writing, which are rendered indecipherable when the arbitrary meanings that link signifying characters with signified sounds or, signifying words as sound patterns with signified objects of reference, are lost.

When we are dealing with a form of image writing which is a-signifying and anasemantic, we can still seek to discern substantiations that incorporate grammatological functionalities — and in doing so, derive information from the arrangements of image composites we encounter therein.

One viable step toward such an approach, and one that certainly bears consideration, is that of a “geophilosophy”, as outlined by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari:

"Subject and object give a poor approximation of thought. Thinking is neither a line drawn between subject and object nor a revolving of one around the other. Rather, thinking takes place in the relationship of territory and earth . . . The earth is not one element among others but rather brings together all the elements within a single embrace while using one or another of them to deterritorialize territory . . . Territory and earth are two components with two zones of indiscernibility — deterritorialization (from territory to earth) and reterritorialization (from earth to territory). We cannot say which comes first [Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, pgs. 85–86].”

This is simply to say that, examining how objects were used in carving a place out for people within the world will give us a better idea of how people were placing themselves in their world; better, that is, than trying to imagine first how people saw their world, and then attempting to determine how people were placing themselves within the world. Attempting to dictate in a predetermined fashion how people perceived their world, and then placing them within that preconception, is an approach that is ideological in nature — and as such, almost inevitably leads to racist determinations regarding the people being assessed from outside their own culture. People are always already within the world; and in examining how they situated themselves through the objects they used, we get a clearer idea of how they anchored themselves to their world.

Looking at how the things that people made would have allowed them to better live in their world, could give us a clearer idea of what and how these people thought, than would trying to imply relationships directly between those things and the thoughts of the people who made them. How people responded to the different aspects of their world, depending upon where and when they lived, could allow us to better grasp the ideas that informed their decisions. This is an approach much better suited to discerning how people placed themselves relative to actual world conditions, than is assuming we can infer a universality of thought that would allow us to directly compare conceptual developments across regional and cultural divides.

We can't assume at the outset that relationships we infer between people and things tells us about their ways of being in the world; but we can see the physicality of how things were intentionally created, with a functional place in mind relative to the world, as indicating how people approached living within the world where they found themselves. This is a subtle distinction, but one which causes an ever greater difference in interpretive methodologies the farther we find ourselves from the people we are asking about — or the farther different groups might actually be from each other within the world.

Thus in seeking a place to start when comparing: 1) the forms of phonetic writing which arose from, a point-of-origin in the Near East; and, 2) the forms of image writing which are native to North America, we might find some success in considering for each the various relationships apparently holding between territory, and the earth, for either.

Contrasts

An Initial Comparative Analysis

Schmandt-Besserat places the origin of phonetic writing with the development of agriculture in the Near East. We can trace the origins of agriculture in that area back quite far, with indications of plant cultivation found at the Ohalo II site by the Sea of Galilee dating back 23,000 years. There, it appears that agricultural production was just one of many survival strategies employed for obtaining food: the exclusive cultivation of grains by dedicated farming techniques, which produced those surpluses that eventually allowed for the development of phonetic writing, would still be millennia in the future.

At about the same time, in North America, we have evidence of a site inhabited by people about 24,000 years ago: the Bluefish Caves in Canada’s Yukon Territory. There, bones from such species as horse, mammoth, bison, and caribou were dated to as long as 30,000 years ago — with the oldest bone fragment that show marks from tool use (a horse mandible, where the tongue was apparently removed using stone tools) having been dated to between 23,000 and 24,000 years ago.

The people who had settled at Ohalo II in the Near East were building brush huts at a settled location, where they purposely cultivated some plant species to supplement their diet. The people who inhabited the Bluefish Caves in North America were making use of a preexisting shelter. In the Near East, people were choosing where to live; in North America, people were living where best they could.

In the Near East, people were grounding their food gathering activities in the areas where they lived; in North America, people were actively seeking food resources and bringing these back to the places in which they lived — and in all probability, these sites were temporary and seasonal in nature (summers in the Yukon Territory, “land of the midnight sun”, see some of the hottest temperatures now recorded in Canada; whereas the winters of “eternal night” see some of the coldest temperatures on record). Both groups lived near bodies of water, which would have supplied fish as a food resource.

Immediately, we can see a distinct contrast between the ways in which these two groups each created the territory they inhabited upon this earth: in the Near East, people were settling into distinct locations, where they cultivated a rooted existence; in North America, people were foraging widely in a seasonal manner, while making use of any advantageous shelter they could find.

By about 12,000 years ago in the Near East, the herding of domestic animals had begun. By at least 11,000 years ago there, the cultivation of cereal grains as a major food source was well established; and taken together, these advances are known as “The Agricultural (or Neolithic) Revolution”.

In contrast, we find that people living on the Northwest Coast of North America 14,000 years ago were utilizing such resources as sea mammals, fish, and shellfish in order to survive. A site on British Columbia’s Triquet Island, in the traditional territory of the Heiltsuk Nation, indicates that people were at that time traveling by boat along the coast of North America; and there, they probably made temporary camps in the few ice-free refugia that afforded them some access to food resources that were otherwise limited by the encircling glaciers which then dominated the Northern Hemisphere.

In this we can see a distinct divergence, between the Near East and North America, in the way that people were developing their sense of territory upon the earth: in the Near East, people were becoming established in distinct locations where they could rely upon managed food resources; and in North America, people were traveling between locations which afforded them limited access to food resources — and in doing so, they were not seeking surpluses but, were instead carefully allocating selective harvests to the locations they relied upon for food, in a way which would not endanger the productivity of any one such area by overtaxing its limited resources.

Cognitively, we can already see a very clear constellation of differences emerging: between a sense of settled abundance; and, a focus which constantly shifted between resources that needed careful conservation, to ensure future availability. These two very different sets of territorial relation, as established with respect to very different experiential world settings, are immensely more informative of the comparative differences between the forms of writing each area engendered, than any assessment based upon one or the other form of writing could ever prove to be if taken as paradigmatic for all writing.

In other words: between these two locations, we have two very different cognitive grounds forming, from which writing could develop as the expression of thoughts that convey those conceptual processes implicated in establishing some sense of territory upon this earth. So in a very real sense. writing emerges here as a mechanism for imparting traces of deterritorialization (as abstraction) and reterritorialization (as inscription) upon a mediating substrate.

Dating Writing’s Emergence

Moving forward to the time period in which Schmandt-Besserat sees the first prerequisites of phonetic writing emerge, we find that by about 9,500 years ago tokens were being used in trade as representations for surplus goods in the Near East — that is, by about 7,500 BC. These tokens have been accurately dated from professionally excavated archaeological sites.

The image writing examples from North America that I have found were located in sites so disturbed as to be entirely disassociated from any original context. There is no accurate dating for these, such as an archaeological excavation would produce. These, I always found openly exposed on the surface: in roadside gravel; below the high tide mark on beaches (where, it has been documented, tidal actions over time can move stones hundreds of miles from their original location); as ornamental stones dumped alongside walkways, or upon traffic islands in the middle of roadways — none of these objects have any in situ context. This will of course change in the future, as younger archaeologists begin to throw off the wide range of racist presuppositions that relegate writing to an exclusively Near Eastern origin, in dictating the necessity for writing’s phonetic nature; but that may take some time, as many archaeologists still rely upon employment by industries involved with resource extraction and development — industries which profit primarily through the exploitation of traditional lands seized from, but never ceded by, the First Nations of North America.

area of interest on example of North American image writing, showing Pleistocene animals

It is, however, still possible to date many examples of image writing that I have examined to a specific period — insofar as these often present images of animals long extinct. In such cases, these examples can be dated at the latest to a time when such animals still existed in North America. Many of the animals so depicted are now known to have become extinct about 11,000 years ago — which places the creation and use of such images at a point well before even the conceptual rudiments of writing were emerging in the Near East.

closer view of artifact showing Pleistocene animals from North America Artifact Image

As noted earlier, the relationships holding between territory and earth were quite different in North America, as compared to the Near East; and in this, we have strong indications that the development of writing in North America would be taking a much different path than that of phonetic writing’s documented emergence in the Near East.

An interesting contrast becomes apparent at this point: at about 11,000 years ago, we find agriculture beginning to emerge in the Neat East at a scale that will eventually support the emergence of writing. At the same time, in North America, we find that images are already being used in a way which presents us with a form of writing that is non-phonetic in nature. Before phonetic writing actually appears in the Near East, we find the conditions from which it emerges becoming established — but a that same time, we also find that a very different form of writing is already in use in North America. What is particularly interesting in this is that, for the emergence of phonetic writing in the Near East, we must move forward from that point 11,000 years ago — but for the emerge of image writing in North America, we must move farther back in time to define that form of writing’s point-of-origin. In both cases, though, we can still find parallel examples of some important developmental stages for what Schmandt-Besserat identifies, through cognitive archaeology, as integral to the emergence of writing: the development of abstraction.

With this in mind, we must admit one fundamental truth: whatever cognitive parallels might exist between the two, we cannot possibly assess the forms of writing which emerged in North America using criteria derived from a study of those forms of writing which emerged in the Near East. At this point, a startling conclusion seems inevitable: the origin of image writing, as the possible root from which the glyphic writing systems of Asia and Mesoamerica developed, long predates the origin of phonetic writing in the Near East.

Examining Image Writing Examples

Consider one such example, a nondescript piece of granite which presents black flecks of stone grain held within a matrix of white rock. A closer examination reveals that this particular piece of stone has been roughly shaped into the form of a head — and that a face was them formed through the selective modification of the natural pattern of stone grain presented by this rock. Unmistakable in its feline features, and in the particular nature of the black marks extending below the eyes, this face has been stylized to appear as that of a cheetah.

artifact showing North American cheetah, as compared with African cheetah North American Artifact

Now, most people are familiar with cheetahs as a species of big cat native to Africa; but in fact, all modern cheetahs are descended from stock which migrated from North America to Africa starting about 100,000 years ago. Those cheetah that remained in North America died out about 11,000–12,000 years ago; although, the effect of their presence can still be found in prey species such as North American antelope, which evolved to run far faster than any predator now alive in North America — and maybe, just fast enough to sometimes elude a cheetah.

(Aside: How The Image Display Below Functions)

Any of the images appearing in the display format shown below will rotate a full 360 degrees, to give a full view of the artifact being examined. Viewing controls for these images are located at the top of each image. Circular arrow buttons advance the image by six degrees of rotation (in the case of those images displayed on this page - and this varies in accordance with how I have photographed the original images) in either direction. The "plus" key (+) will zoom in on the image, in five steps (again, for the images presented here); whereupon it will change to a "zoom out" control (—) that resets the image to its original state. The left pointing arrow (>) will start the image in an automatic rotation; when engaged, it then changes to a "stop" button that will halt the rotation. Finally, the last button enables a "full screen" view. You can also click directly on the images to zoom in, or click-and-drag to rotate. A mouse wheel will also rotate the images, and holding on a zoomed-in image will allow the image to be repositioned by dragging it.

Because these 360 degree rotational views draw upon 60 or more high resolution photographs (to allow detailed zooming-in), this display can take quite a while to fully load over low bandwidth servers.

Whomever crafted the images upon this stone not only saw North American cheetahs — they were familiar enough with the species to value, and want to emulate, its natural abilities. This particular stone had to have been culturally modified by a person in North America at least 11,000 years ago — at least a thousand years before tokens were being used in the Near East as representational of trade goods. And as singular as this particular example appears, it is by no means unique: indeed, examples crafted from the same kind of rock, which presents natural patterns of black stone grain within a matrix of white rock, abound. At this point we are of course compelled to ask: How can we establish that such artifacts express anything that could be construed as constituting a form of writing?

In answer to this, consider the first example I happened upon — the one which made me realize I had encountered a previously undocumented form of writing. Among other image features, perhaps the most prominent is the appearance of a very distinct and recognizably expressive face:

image writing example showing a facial composite, with differential image elements located positionally as eyes Artifact Face

A closer examination, however, reveals something very interesting: each of the features which constitute this facial composite is, in its own right, a different image element than that which would occupy the natural position it holds. Either eye, for instance, does not appear in the form of an eye but, simply holds the position in which an eye would appear on a face. The eye on the left side facing is a person (one who is holding a raised knife); and the eye on the right side facing is a mammoth:

close view of the differential image elements that are positionally localized as eyes

The linguistic implications of this are incisive.

As one who developed some of the earliest concepts describing semiology (the study of signs) as a science, Charles Sanders Peirce had a very specific description of what constitutes a “sign”:

“A sign is an object which stands for another to some mind. I propose to describe the characters of a sign. In the first place like any other thing it must have qualities which belong to it whether it be regarded as a sign or not thus a printed word is black, has a certain number of letters and those letters have certain shapes. Such characters of a sign I call its material quality. In the next place a sign must have some real connection with the thing it signifies so that when the object is present or is so as the sign signifies it to be the sign shall so signify it and otherwise not. [...] In the first place it is necessary for a sign to be a sign that it should be regarded as a sign for it is only a sign to that mind which so considers and if it is not a sign to any mind it is not a sign at all. It must be known to the mind first in its material qualities but also in its pure demonstrative application. That mind must conceive it to be connected with its object so that it is possible to reason from the sign to the thing [Peirce; On the nature of Signs: 64 - MS 381]”.


According to Peirce, one of the inviolate characteristics of a sign — of a representation utilized as a form of signification — is that it ‘is something which appears in the place of another thing’. Peirce literally states:

“A very broad and important class of triadics characters [consist of] representations. A representation is that character of a thing by virtue of which, for the production of a certain mental effect, it may stand in place of another thing [Peirce; Notes on "A new list of categories”: 10 - v 1899 - C.P. 1-564]”.

(Peirce characterizes signs as triadic, as being formed of three elements; and this is a very different approach than that taken by Ferdinand de Saussure in his Course in General Linguistics, which defined signs in terms of signification — that is, as being characterized as a relationship between a signifier, as a word, and a signified as an object. There is much contention within linguistic circles as to whether Peirce’s and Saussure’s definitions are in some way equatable; but I won’t go into that discussion here.)

Taking Peirce’s definition literally, and using it as a simplified method for quickly identifying irrefutable instances of signification, we can see how the example presented above constitutes exactly this manner of occurrence. Taking that presentation of a face, when we find that the composite elements which make up any face — eyes, mouth, and so on — are positionally accurate as to their placement but, at the same time, present images of things other than those facial components, then we literally have an example of ‘one thing appearing in the place of another’. We have an instance of an image element which is functioning in a semiological manner.

Examining this instance a little more closely, what we actually see occurring is a deterritorialization relative to the eye's positional nature — that is, an abstraction of the eye's position, as defined by its location within a face — and a correlated reterritorialization of that position by the now differential image element, which then assumes the positional localization of an eye in a facial composite. Thus, of equal importance here is the fact that we are in such instances defining a grammatological functionality — that is, a way in which positional localization functions in a linguistic fashion — rather than a semiological meaning which presupposes (and indeed demands) a known, learned relationship between word and object, between sign-in-writing and sound-in-speech.

Although this assessment is literally accurate for C. S. Peirce’s definition of a sign, the instance we are considering is admittedly not the sort of situation that Peirce intended to indicate — he was trying to define the general conditions under which a semiological element acts as the signifier, in relation to that particular object which serves as its intended signified. However, in doing so — in attempting to establish the most basic parameters under which semiological elements function — Peirce constructed a definition which perfectly describes readily apparent instances of semiological occurrence within the image writing system which developed in North America. Peirce cast his definitional net widely enough to encompass a form of writing that he was completely unaware existed.

Pareidolia and Prosopagnosia

Demonstrating how various elements found within this form of image writing will definitionally conform with the way in which semiological elements function is something that is easily achievable. However, one very common objection is often raised with respect to the way in which such visual elements are identified. Termed ‘pareidolia’, this is a tendency to see images of faces in natural objects — such as the face of a deity in the texture of a piece of burnt toast — and it is due to integral neurological processes which, common to almost all people, underpins our ability to recognize faces as such.

Interestingly, it has only been over the past decade that an understanding has emerged of how exactly this process functions — an understanding that has been based upon a study of ‘prosopagnosia’, which is an INABILITY to recognize faces. Through insights gained in the course of such studies, Doris Tsao was able to demonstrate that facial recognition does NOT proceed (as was generally thought) through a direct representational correspondence of recognition (such as that between a word and an object) but, is instead neurologically composed from functional processes that compile as many as 50 individual contrasts that hold between individual aspects of facial elements. Previously it had been assumed that in each case, one specific neuron was coded to each particular face a person could recognize. Tsao demonstrated that this is not the case, and that instead facial recognition proceeds through an ensemble of neurological processes.

That facial recognition is composed from a multiplicity of differential contrasts is consistent with the way in which the image writing system that emerged in North America functions — through a functionality which is very different from the nature of direct correspondence that underlies phonetic writing, as exemplified by the system of accounting from which phonetic writing emerged in the Near East. And in particular, it should be noted here that the objection of ‘pareidolia’ raised in an attempt to delegitimize the facial composites apparent in the form of image writing which was invented in North America does not in any way account for the differentially variable image elements found within these facial composites — a prominent feature of this image writing which Tsao’s insights do help to contextualize, in a way which is very different than the relationships between signifiers as words and signifieds as objects which characterize phonetic forms of writing. Once again, this distinction also draws into prominence that notable disjunction between the definitional approaches to semiology taken by Charles Sanders Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure, which pivots upon the role played by an observer's point-of-view.

Summary

Broadly speaking, then: Although we find that there are readily identifiable characteristics apparent in these examples of image construction from 11,000 years ago in North America, which correspond definitionally to how semiological elements are currently conceptualized for phonetic writing; at the same time, there are very definite differences which establish this form of image writing as distinct in its own right. And it is interesting to note that, it is the very nature of these divergences — between these examples of image writing, and those of phonetic writing such as had arisen in the Near East (which both Peirce and Saussure were primarily concerned with describing) — that provides us with very relevant clues as to the true nature of this form of image writing.

“Writing: A system of human communication by the mean of arbitrary visual signs [Denise Schmandt-Besserat: The Evolution of Writing; pg. 15].”

With the phonetic writing that arose from a point of origin in the Near East, the concept of ‘standing in the place of another’ that Peirce references is one defined by correspondence: that is, it presents an abstraction (such as Schmandt-Besserat stresses is pivotal for the invention of phonetic writing); but it does so in such a way that, a direct connection of some form remains between the object represented and the representation which appears in its place. In the Near East, this connectivity initially occurs in the context of accounting — as a one-to-one correspondence, such as the act of counting typifies.

With examples offered from North America, something very different is happening: the images presented are also abstracted, in that they are images of things other than the physical substrate from which they are composed; but, more importantly, there is a contextualization being established through the appearance of these images — one which occurs through the realization of their positional localization. This is something which we should not find to be at all unexpected, coming as it does from a semi-nomadic culture — one which was primarily concerned with locating food resources that could be utilized in a sustainable fashion, in contrast to a culture which would be primarily concerned with an accounting for, and the distribution of, excess food resources produced from stable locations. Indeed, what we are seeing as the positional introduction of abstraction within this form of image writing is a linguistically functional deterritorialization — one which defines grammatological localization — coupled with a semiological reterritorialization of referential meaning.

Given the way in which the development of phonetic writing in the Near East can be traced — from an origin in surpluses of agricultural production, and on through various stages until we find signs being used to represent the sounds of speech — it stands to reason that we might also be able to apply something akin to the cognitive archaeology referenced by Denise Schmandt-Besserat in attempting to discern the origin of image writing in North America.

Our first indication of how we might begin such a 'tracing back' — from the apparent instances of semiological function we can identify in the image writing that was developed in North America, to the nature of the origin from which this image writing evolved — occurs in the observation that “positional localization” plays a fundamental role within this form of image writing. This insight also hints that we may well encounter here a writing that forms more directly within a context of grammatological structure — and does so more notably than it does from the kind of semiological signification that characterizes the word-and-object relational patterns of phonetic speech.

Of Space and Time

This should not be an unexpected outcome when considering two very different forms of writing, each with a very distinct origin that differs greatly from the other: That both would conform to a very broad definition of what constitutes the nature of those signs from which writing is composed; and that each would do so in a way which is consistent with the context from which they developed. Whereas the origin of phonetic writing in the Near East lies within a system of accounting — one in which amounts of tokens corresponded with units of goods, in a way consistent with that in which written words would come to signify designated objects — the image writing system which developed in North America articulates upon positional localization, as might be expected from a cultural context which sought seasonal food sources in a semi-nomadic manner. The image writing system of North America thus tends more strongly toward being defined in grammatological terms (where the context of occurrence functions to impart meaning), whereas the phonetic writing systems that developed from a point-of-origin in the Near East are more heavily weighted toward signification (as exemplified by relationships of direct correspondence).

Again, it should not seem surprising that facial recognition — functionally composed from neurological structures that process a multiplicity of differential contrasts — would find itself serving an integral role within such a system of image writing. Cognitively, in comparative contrast, it would appear that personal names (as always experientially related to specific faces) played a corresponding role in the development of phonetic writing, by facilitating the transition of a system of accounting into one which conveyed the sounds of speech.

There is, however, another more basic difference extending from these two very distinct origins: whereas the origin of phonetic writing is initially tied to a system of accounting that is primarily concerned with recording differences of amount, the origin of image writing distinguishes more strongly between different kinds of things — between different types of animals, for example. This is yet another fundamental conceptual difference between the different contexts each of these forms of writing emerged from; for as Henri Bergson demonstrated:

"The important thing here is that the decomposition of the composite reveals to us two types of multiplicity. One is represented by space (or rather, if all the nuances are taken into account, by the impure combination of homogenous time): It is a multiplicity of exteriority, of simultaneity, of juxtaposition, of order, of quantitative differentiation, of difference in degree; it is a numerical multiplicity, discontinuous and actual. The other type of multiplicity appears in pure duration: It is an internal multiplicity of succession, of fusion, of organization, of heterogeneity, of qualitative discrimination, or of difference in kind; it is a virtual and continuous multiplicity that cannot be reduced to numbers."

"In fact for Bergson it is not a question of opposing the Multiple to the One but, on the contrary, of distinguishing two types of multiplicity.”

"Everything is actual in the numerical multiplicity; everything is not "realized," but everything there is actual. There are no relationships other than those between actuals, and no differences other than those in degree. On the other hand, a nonnumerical multiplicity by which duration or subjectivity is defined, plunges into another dimension, which is no longer spatial and is purely temporal: It moves from the virtual to its actualization, it actualizes itself by creating lines of differentiation that correspond to its differences in time. A multiplicity of this kind has, essentially, the three properties of continuity, heterogeneity, and simplicity [Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism; pgs. 38-39 & 43]."

It is a characteristic of phonetic writing that signification is arbitrary process: as with the relationship in accounting between numbers and the objects enumerated, there is no necessary connection between a group of objects and the number of its count except that which actually exist — and this can always vary, regardless of the objects being counted. In this way, the arbitrary nature of the accounting system which utilized tokens could serve to facilitate arbitration: disputes over the amount of goods delivered, relative to the number expected, could be resolved through the account rendered by the tokens sent to accompany the goods being delivered. As Denise Schmandt-Besserat has noted, the arbitrary nature of this connection (between objects and their tallied count) served to conceptually ground what became the representational connection between any word, as a composition of arbitrary sounds, and the specific reference it designated within a spoken language — but in a way such that meaning could only be shared between speakers by each learning these arbitrary correspondences, within the context of their socially agreed patterns of usage.

A necessary correlate of this origin for phonetic writing as a form of signification, as established through and exemplified by a system designed to provide numeric counts for goods, is the simple fact that the loss of correspondent meanings — between arbitrary sounds taken as words signifying specific objects — will irrevocably result in the loss of any information conveyed by the form of writing in question. Indeed, the history of writing is heavily populated with texts that are no longer decipherable precisely because that arbitrary connection — between symbols and what they represented as sounds in the spoken languages of those who used them — are now lost.

There is of course necessarily an aspect of the arbitrary apparent in the form of image writing which developed in North America; but, it is of a different nature than that which informed the origins of phonetic writing in the Near East. Whereas phonetic writing, such as arose from a Near-Eastern origin, establishes a conceptual grasp of the arbitrary based upon an abstract correspondence between numbers and quantified goods, image writing characteristically distinguishes between types of things; that is, differences-in-kind. Further, we see phonetic writing first deterritorializes from spoken languages before reterritorializing upon a material substrate, retaining and maintaining the correspondence between sound and meaning in the process; whereas image writing both deterritorializes and reterritorializes within a visual context, utilizing the same material, mediating substrate. With phonetic writing, it is the retention within the memory of correspondences between sounds and symbols as referential that is of primary importance (as with signification, as defined by Saussure); but with image writing, it is the temporal distinction between kinds of things within the lived experience — something that demands memory, as one thing can only be distinguished from another over time, as the distinct way each is within the world — that grounds an ability to conceptually differentiate abstract differences-in-kind from an observer’s point-of-view (as with semiology, as defined by Pierce).

The image writing of North America visually distinguished between kinds of things; and as such, the arbitrary aspect which it embodied was that of temporal contingency: it is an event language, and as such it functions in a way that is very different from phonetic forms of writing. That is the primary difference between a system of signification which has an origin grounded by representations of numerical differences-in-degree, and, one which is distinguished by distinctions between differences-in-kind that can only be discerned within time — that is, as durations distinguished through the active application of volitional memory.

Please note here that these kinds of temporal distinctions are characteristic of a specific form of multiplicity — one which is entirely consistent with the very form of compositional variance between differential image elements we noted earlier with respect to instances of facial recognition. In recognition of this fundamental difference, between the numerical (or "metrical") context in which signification-as-correspondence originates for phonetic writing, and, the temporal distinctions which ground the functional nature of abstraction in this form of image writing, I will now refer to the latter as ANAMETRIC IMAGE WRITING — a term which also acknowledges the anasemantic and a-signifying nature that anametric image writing embodies of the material substrates in which its production is grounded.

Definitionally, a pattern is emerging here — one which unites positional localization within a context of differential variance and, in doing so, is capable of embodying the arbitrary nature of empirical contingency; that is, the arbitrarily contingent nature of the events as they occur in reality.

The World's Oldest Written Joke

For interests sake, and to give some idea of how divergent these two forms of writing are, here is an example of anametric image writing from North America which was created at least 11,000 years — as witnessed by the inclusion of images that depict North American lions, which became extinct about that long ago in time.

Selecting for the image details of one particular North American lion (below); we see: Top Left: a lion spots what appears to be a very large bird (only, birds don't have teeth). Top Right: the lion moves in for the kill (well, something is definitely going to die). Bottom Left: now it is the lion which is unceremoniously flying through the air (pterodactyls apparently packed quite a kick). Bottom Right: we see the lion's head in silhouette, as the pterodactyl stands (presumably feasting) on top of its body. No, that definitely wasn't a bird!

example of image writing which shows a pterodactyl — that is, a dragon Artifact Image

The thing about empirical contingency is that it manifestly conforms to “that which is” (or was). In point of fact, that which we consider to be “logical” must itself conform to the nature of what actually is — not the other way around; which is to say, knowledge is necessarily grounded upon evidence, not theory (which can of course still indicate where to look for evidence of what constitutes the real). Starting from phonetic writing, we must first define the semiological linkages which give written words their linguistic meaning, before we can determine the nature of the information being conveyed. When we begin with images, however, we are immediately taken into a location where we must discern the positional relationships holding between what we see before us.

And so: While I have no doubt that the annals of phonetic writing will want to ‘arbitrate’ this once-reality (which I will now present here) away from any possibility for actually-having-existed, the differences-in-kind this example shows very clearly indicate that at some point before 11,000 years ago, on the Northwest Coast of North America, people encountered residual species of pterodactyl — or as we now refer to their distant memory, “dragons”.

image writing example showing a pterodactyl Artifact Photo

I’ll ague for this interpretation at greater length elsewhere (and I have multiple examples depicting such creatures), but what I want to draw your attention to now is one particular aspect of this stone. First, though, consider one very telling characteristic of this image (whatever it depicts): this animal is shown both facing the viewer, and in profile. In other words, this image composite presents something that is shown as varying from itself without being other than itself — a difference that implicitly expresses a variance that can only be expressed in terms of temporal duration (as, a turning-of-the-head). In this, we can immediately determine that we are not looking at random patterns of natural stone grain (which could only show differences in degree; as between, more and less, closer and farther, darker and lighter, and so on): we are looking at a temporal distinction, between before and after, that can only occur through MEMORY. We are looking at how someone inscribed, from their volitional memory, a duration which characterized an event that they witnessed.

Upon the back of the pterodactyl, where we can see the wing tips folded up when it is standing on the ground (and it is interesting to note that modern paleontologists usually depict these creatures as awkwardly walking with all four limbs in contact with the ground — which was apparently not the case), we can see that each of those wing tips (positionally localized as such) is also something else; which is to say, each wing tip presents an example of ‘one thing standing in place of another thing’. On the left side facing, for one wing tip we have the image of a person who seems to be looking at something in their hand — perhaps this very stone we are examining now. On the right side facing, looking over the shoulder of that person — looking, perhaps, at that same stone they are examining — we have the very large head of a pterodactyl, which in this case would comparatively be about eighteen feet tall when standing.

close view of the world's oldest written joke Artifact Close-Up

Assuming that someone from that long-ago-time would necessarily be aware of pterodactyls (and remember, we are talking about dragons here — probably, not something that anyone would have ignored), and familiar with this form of writing, they would see the image of someone looking at such a stone as they were holding — one which shows a pterodactyl, looking over the shoulder of the person they are seeing depicted upon the stone they themselves are holding. Given that the dominant grammatological characteristic for this form of image writing appears to be that of ‘positional localization’, the way that this particular constellation of image composites functions is to convey a very particular message, with reference to pterodactyls (dragons):

“THERE’S ONE RIGHT BEHIND YOU (made you look)!”

In other words: this is the world’s oldest known written joke, and it dates to a time well before even the rudiments of phonetic writing emerged. Before people people in the Near East had begun the widespread use of tokens to represent trade goods, people in North America were already writing jokes — and the form of image writing they used to do so must have begun to emerge long before that.

The primary problem with pterodactyls (dragons), one might infer, was not that they could fly — it was that they would land, anywhere, anytime, unannounced to the unaware. Grammatologically, with respect to the positional localization of a potential reader, this image composite is fulfilling a very specific semiological function: that of a pronoun. It does so by deterritorializing the conscious awareness of a reader from where they actually are, and reterritorializing it into an abstraction of where they physically are — as their conceptual position within what what Jean-Paul Sartre termed "imaging consciousness" (the imagination).

This is an occurrence that is readily discernible as an event, and it fits precisely Bergson’s definition of how durations divide up time through differences-in-kind: the change from shock at seeing oneself standing with a dragon looking over one’s shoulder, followed by the realization (with relief) that a prank had been played upon oneself: and in this, we see a person varying from themselves without being other than themself. More tellingly, anyone might see themselves in that very position — and in other words: This is the world’s oldest known written joke, and it dates to a time well before the rudiments of phonetic writing even emerged. Before people people in the Near East had begun the widespread use of tokens to represent trade goods, people in North America were already writing jokes. All of which necessarily demonstrates consciousness-of-self, and consciousness-of-consciousness in others: the person who created this example of image writing assumed any person examining this stone would be self-conscious, as observationally aware of their own consciousness.

We no longer have dragons (pterosaurs) to worry about, but we can still appreciate this written joke – even though we do not speak the language of whomever crafted this little joke. That is something we would never be able to say was true of any now-forgotten phonetic form of writing.