The French journal L’Histoire has a special issue on reading and writing in ancient societies. One article, about Mesopotamia, makes several points that support an argument I have made: the invention of writing, especially alphabetical writing, created a strong selection pressure for people who had the rare ability to take dictation or copy written texts with a low error rate and over extended lengths of time (Frost, 2007).
1. In the ancient world, reading and writing required much stamina, concentration, and memorization, more than is the case today with current reader-friendly language. This may be seen in the long training needed to make a good scribe.
To learn cuneiform writing, the students followed a specific and very standardized curriculum that has been reconstituted thanks to the thousands of exercises that have been found. Training began with writing of simple signs and then writing of lists of syllables and names. Next came copying of long lexical lists that corresponded to all sorts of realities: names of trades, animals, plants, vases, wooden objects, fabrics, … Then came copying of complex Sumerian ideograms, even though Sumerian had become a dead language, with their pronunciation and their translation in Akkadian. Learning of Sumerian was completed by copying increasingly difficult texts: proverbs and contracts, and then hymns.
2. Scribes were not recruited from the general population. Their profession seems to have been largely family-transmitted, and was recognized as such.
Learning of cuneiform, in the early 2nd millennium, took place in a master’s home and not in an institutional “school”. The tradition was often passed down within families, with scribes training their children.
3. Although writing was generally done by scribes, many more people could read and, if need be, write.
It has long been believed that in ancient Mesopotamia only a very small part of the population knew how to read and write and that these skills were reserved for specialists, i.e., scribes. Several recent studies have called this idea into question and have shown that access to reading, and even writing, was not so uncommon. Some kings, and also the members of their entourage, family, ministers, or generals, as well as merchants, could do without a reader’s services, when necessary, and decipher on their own the letters sent to them. Sometimes, they were even able to take a quill—the sharpened end of a reed—and write their own tablets.
The last point may help us understand a chicken-and-egg question. If reading and writing are associated with specific genetic predispositions, how did people initially manage to read and write? (see previous posts: Decoding ASPM: Part I, Part II, Part III)
The answer is that these predispositions are not necessary for reading and writing. But they do help. Specifically, they help the brain process written characters faster. In this way, natural selection has genetically reinforced an ability that started as a purely cultural innovation.
This may be a recurring pattern in human evolution. Humans initially took on new tasks, like reading and writing, by pushing the envelope of mental plasticity. Then, once these tasks had become established and sufficiently widespread, natural selection favored those individuals who were genetically predisposed to do them better.
The term is ‘gene-culture co-evolution’ and it’s still a novel concept. Until recently, anthropologists thought that human cultural evolution had simply taken over from human genetic evolution, making the latter unnecessary and limiting it to superficial ‘skin-deep’ changes. But recent findings now paint a different picture. Genetic evolution has actually accelerated in our species over the past 40,000 years, and even more over the past 10,000-15,000. The advent of agriculture saw the rate increase a 100-fold. In all, natural selection has changed at least 7% of the genome during the existence of Homo sapiens. (Hawks et al., 2007; see previous post). And this is a minimal estimate that excludes much variation that may or may not be due to selection. The real figure could be higher. Much higher.
Frost, P. 2007. “The spread of alphabetical writing may have favored the latest variant of the ASPM gene”, Medical Hypotheses, 70, 17-20.
Hawks, J., E.T. Wang, G.M. Cochran, H.C. Harpending, and R.K. Moyzis. (2007). Recent acceleration of human adaptive evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), 104(52), 20753-20758
Lion, B. (2008). Les femmes scribes de Mésopotamie. L’Histoire, no. 334 (septembre), pp. 46-49.