Some ideas are so powerful that when they collapse, an entire system of intellectual belief comes down with them. That happened to me recently when I realized that writing was not invented by the ancient Sumerians in Mesopotamia 5,500 years ago. Nor did they invent the wheel or the plough. Civilization did not begin in the “Cradle.”
Let me back up here for a moment, and you, my reader, take a breath.
Mesopotamia has been considered the cradle of complex western society for so long that it has been heretical in the academic world to raise any challenge. Along with the belief that civilization began in the Near East (now Iraq) comes the dark face of war, slavery, suppression of women, archaic statehood, kings and patriarchy — all of which arose together with the invention of writing in that region. As a consequence, it has been all but impossible to see how Western culture could have advanced without men in charge, along with fighting, war and imperialism.
That has now changed.
New evidence proposes that writing first appeared in the Balkan region of Eastern Europe some 8,000 years ago, way before the Sumerians started inscribing cuneiform symbols on clay tablets. These old Europeans began carving symbols on figurines and vases that showed consistency and broad appearance across hundreds of miles, along river and other trade routes. It was an early form of writing called “logography” —in which each symbol represented a single idea — and was typical of all writing systems originating in Egypt, India, the Near East and China. Moreover, the European script had the same number of marks as all the other early systems — between 700 and 800 symbols, according to the research of German linguist Harald Haarmann.
What makes this news particularly relevant, however, is that the writing arose in an egalitarian, female-centered culture without hierarchy or warfare. Human society did not need patriarchy and war to reach an advanced stage called “civilization.”
With more than 70 original books, including the Universal History of Writing, and 500 articles to his name, Dr. Haarmann is one of the giants in his field. He is a member of the Research Centre on Multilingualism in Brussels and Vice President of the Institute of Archaeomythology in Sebastopol, Ca. Haarmann speaks eight languages and reads 20. In five decades of work, he has found that writing began in Eastern Europe one to two thousand years before it appeared in Mesopotamia.
Though he began reporting this amazing find twenty years ago, it was not until very recently that his work gained the attention of academics whose ideas have been fenced in around the notion that Mesopotamia was the cradle of civilization. He spoke in July at the Association for the Study of Women and Mythology.
“It’s not true that writing was invented in Mesopotamia,” said Dr. Haarmann in a recent interview with me. “Nor did the Sumerians invent the wheel (that happened in Europe also). One by one these old cliches are being deconstructed.”
Mesopotamian writing was a dead end, he said. And with that, ideas that culture and complexity — civilization itself — arose in the Middle East and spread West come crashing down as well. Imperialism and rule by men were not the sources of advanced culture.
As usual in anthropology, there were several independent sources of advancement, a fact that’s evident in the writing material Dr. Haarmann has collected. Eastern European writing arose first in human history, but there were several other localized developments, including in Mesopotamia. Egypt and China. If they survived at all, these logographic systems gave way to syllabic and then much later to alphabetic writing. The modern Western alphabet derived from Phoenician traders in the 8th century BCE and was adopted by the ancient Greeks.
I feel immense relief as a feminist to know that writing first evolved in an egalitarian society that valued female authority and worshipped goddesses. It tells me women’s power does not just channel cultural advancement but is the creative source of new development.
One good reason we haven’t known this is because male authority constantly writes female action out of the history books. The ancient Greeks did that when they thought of themselves as inventing “democracy,” but in fact, democratic traditions came from the earlier Europeans who governed themselves in local councils.
“Democracy was not a glorious invention of Greece,” Haarmann said. “They borrowed it from the Old European village councils.” But you wouldn’t know that from the Greek patriarchs.
Haarmann’s books are currently enjoying a burst of new attention derived from an historic concession made four years ago by anthropologist Colin Renfrew. In his famous speech, Renfrew acknowledged that Old European archaeologist Marija Gimbutas was right in claiming that steppe warriors (aka: Indo-Europeans) from the grasslands north of the Black Sea invaded Eastern Europe, and over several millennia changed the egalitarian cultures into a hybrid patriarchal system. Until that moment in 2017, Renfrew’s opposition to Gimbutas had halted academic consideration of the so-called Goddess cultures.
It’s also been difficult for secular academics to credit the European writing symbols because they are inscribed on female figurines which Gimbutas identified as goddess icons. The writing, in other words, was religious in intent, not commercial, as in Mesopotamia. Chevrons, swirls and other beautiful symbols were easy to dismiss as decorative. Haarmann, however, has shown that the symbols appear in a consistent sequence over hundreds of miles apart, along river systems that served as trading routes. They appear in a systematic way, not as random decorations.
With the steppe invasions, trade relations declined and the European writing system entered a hiatus on the mainland. But the knowledge took flight and settled on the Aegean islands, to appear many centuries later as syllabic writing in the Minoan culture on Crete.
There it flourished along with female empowerment and goddess worship until the first Dark Ages in 1,200 BCE abolished writing altogether in the West.
Now I know that what came before patriarchy was not primitive, not even close. in fact, female-centered, egalitarian society inspired the earliest, most creative advancement of all — the ability to communicate over long distances, with writing. The academic world which has long viewed matriarchy/egalitarian culture as primeval and unsophisticated needs to rewrite its stories.