The Origin of Writing

by John Barclay-Morton

A system of human communication by the means of arbitrary visual signs."

Denise Schmandt-Besserat
The Evolution of Writing

"Something in the world forces us to think. This something is an object not of recognition but of a fundamental encounter."

Gilles Deleuze
Difference and Repetition

The Emergence of Writing

World map with locations where image use originated

Map Legend

Oldest sites; — Peak-Glacial sites; — Post-Glacial sites; Image writing sites

A) Blombos Cave, South Africa B) Cerutti Mastodon Site, USA
C) Chauvet-Pont d’Arc, France D) Sulawesi, Indonesia
E) Chiquihuite Cave, Mexico F) Bluefish Caves, Canada
G) Ohalo II, Israel H) Northwest Coast, North America
I) Damaidi, China J) Clay tokens: Near East
K) Indus Valley Scripts: India L) Linear B: Mycenaean Greece
M) Classical Mayan: Central America ?) First Nations of North America

Standard Academic Model

If you are visiting to do research for a school project, this section is the place to start. Here, you will find the standard explanation of how writing began. That narrative is not wrong. It is, however, not the whole story; and my primary interest is with large parts of that story which have been left out.

The usual story of how writing began locates this origin in the Near East, and places this beginning with the agricultural surpluses that occurred as agrarian societies developed. The people who were producing food generally stayed in one place, while the goods they supplied were being moved around. Phonetic writing arises out of that movement of goods — and was shaped at its inception by methods for recording quantities of different things.

Elsewhere, it was people who moved around — in a semi-nomadic lifestyle, between seasonally accessible food sources. The form of writing which arose from this origin was very different than those that evolved in the Middle East; and one dominant characteristic which came into place here can best be described as “positional localization”.

Thus, while the form(s) of writing which arose in the Middle East were heavily weighted toward a very basic form of signification (attaching one sign to another thing: connecting a sign with an object; attaching a number to that sign; substituting a sound, instead of a number, as what is connected to a sign) — the form(s) of writing I have been documenting are more heavily weighted toward grammar: that is, the functional connectivities holding between linguistic elements as co-definitional, determined through various aspects of positional localization.

Indigenous Knowledge of Place

As intentions to decolonize modern culture grow ever more pronounced, it is becoming common for those of a settler ancestry to acknowledge the First Nations of North America by recognizing the traditional territory any gathering of people occurs within, at the outset of such meetings. Anyone who is familiar with the First Nations also knows that their members often identify themselves when meeting others by stating where their traditional territory is found, and which people they are from.

There is a very strong sense of “place” inherent in the way that the First Nations traditionally wrote using images; and here, I will be considering the grammatical depth of such “positional localization” as it occurs within the image writing system(s) of North America’s First Nations. A major consideration here must be the reasons why this form of image writing has never been recognized by academic concerns of a Western European origin. The nature of this exclusion, within a historical context, must be confronted — even as the relationships holding between people and the nature of their traditional territories are considered as informing this image writing.

I first began working with the First Nations in Denendeh, the traditional territory of the Dene Nation, where I worked for two First Nations publications during the early 1980s. My research into the image writing system of the First Nations began in 1991, when I was living in unceded Coast Salish territories on the Northwest Coast. In between, I worked for a number of environmental organizations (after having helped start up the Green Party of Canada at the Federal level).

Technical Considerations

There is no avoiding the fact that any analysis of an image writing system will be working extensively with images. This section will consider different approaches for documenting those images, as drawn from my background in photography.

I began developing and printing black and white film when I was fourteen — literally a lifetime ago. The demonstrative and interpretive opportunities afforded by digital capture technologies are quite astounding, and I have developed a range of techniques that I habitually employ when working with examples of this image writing. In this section, I will go into these techniques and try to provide guidance for others who would be interested in repeating the approaches I have been using to document the examples of image writing I have been researching.

When I began this research project, I was limited to using film-based technologies for documenting the images I was working with. Over the intervening years, digital capture technologies have emerged to dominate imaging; and with this development, a wide range of possibilities for digitally editing images have become available. For instance, High Dynamic Range imaging now allows for locally editing micro-contrast ranges in images, to better present small details. Software for presenting fully interactive 360 degree displays of objects under study has made sharing examples of this image writing much more effective.

One of the techniques I employ here is the use of a Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) to convert pixel-based images into a frequency space. There, the transformed image can be selectively masked for specific image areas; and when the image is put through an inverse FFT, it is reconstructed as a pixel-based image that displays only those particular image areas that were selected for in frequency space. This a good way to display image areas of the same size, but it has an added benefit: many clinical studies directed toward analyzing which areas of the brain are relied upon for our sense of vision utilize FFT-modified images to distinguish how specific parts of visual neurology process images. Therefore, employing FFT-modified images can help with determining how the images presented in this form of writing are being processed by the brain.

Linguistic Parameters

When I began my study of philosophy in the early 1980s, that field was dominated by “The Linguistic Paradigm” — a theoretical model postulating that thought was best studied through language. I had a unique opportunity at that time to study post-structuralism, which critiqued the linguistic paradigm’s core assumption that European languages were "a good example" and so could serve as an adequate representative for any language — and therefore, of all thought.

In contending with this overtly racist approach (as well as other ideologies), post-structuralism developed a wide range of critical tools which have proven to be of great use to me in analyzing this form of image writing on its own terms. Post-structural philosophy, rooted in an opposition to the rise of fascism during WW II, embraced an empirical engagement with reality over any ideology. This has allowed post-structuralism to consistently create viable alterities of differential relations beyond previously accepted “rules and norms” that dictate “what can be said to exist”.

At the same time that post-structural philosophy was solidifying its approaches for substantiating differential interpretive methodologies, a different form of critique opened up in opposition to the linguistic paradigm: that of “The Biological Model”, as championed by scientists such as Richard Dawkins (who proposed the possibility of a social memory unit analogous to that of the gene — the “meme” — which has now become a common aspect of modern social media). The proposition that mental functions — thoughts — are inevitably the product of biological processes (rather than forming of linguistic constraints) is an idea that is still being fruitfully explored today.

Grounding a differentially post-structural analysis of the form of image writing I have been researching, in clinical studies that detail the neural processes underlying vision, has proven to be a very effective approach. It is a testament to the relatively recent establishment of the biological model that clinical findings which parallel the differential concepts advanced from post-structural philosophy are only now being documented — in some cases, within the last year or two — thanks to technological advances in actively imaging neural processes. Undoubtably, this trend will continue into the foreseeable future.