Example of the Jiahu symbols, writing-like markings found on tortoise shells, dated around 6000 BC. The first writing systems of the Early Bronze Age were not a sudden invention. Rather, they were a development based on earlier traditions of symbol systems that cannot be classified as proper writing but have many of the characteristics of writing. These systems may be described as “proto-writing.” They used ideographic or early mnemonic symbols to convey information, but it probably directly contained no natural language. These systems emerged in the early Neolithic period, as early as the 7th millennium BC evidenced by the Jiahu symbols in China.
In 2003, tortoise shells were found in 24 Neolithic graves excavated at Jiahu, Henan province, northern China, with radiocarbon dates from the 7th millennium BC. According to some archaeologists, the symbols carved on the shells had similarities to the late 2nd millennium BC 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 show an evolution of simple symbols, beginning in the 7th millennium BC, gradually increasing in complexity throughout the 6th millennium and culminating in the Tărtăria tablets of c. 5300 BC 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 exact time writing developed from proto-writing. Further, very little is known about the symbols’ meanings.
Times after Neolithic Age
Even after the Neolithic, several cultures went through an intermediate stage of proto-writing before they used proper writing. The “Slavic runes” from the 7th and 8th centuries AD, mentioned by a few medieval authors, may have been such a system. The quipu of the Incas (15th century AD), sometimes called “talking knots,” may have been of a similar nature. Another example is the pictographs invented by Uyaquk before the development of the Yugtun syllabary (c. 1900).