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Africa, the Cradle of Writing
Theophile OBENGA

  1. Introduction

The study of writing provides a rich domain of
cultural history and ideas which interwave the
disciplines of philosophy and religion, linguistics
and humanistic inquiry.

In his book entitled The Aryan Origin of The Alphabet
published in London in 1927, L.A. Waddell believed
that the alphabet had been invented by the
Sumero-Phoenicians who were not "a Semitic people".
But Waddell’s text was produced in support of his
ideological and racial stance, that is, the
superiority of the so-called "Aryan" race.

John D. Ray, a British scholar, made the same
historical distortion when he stated that "idea of
writing" came to Egypt from Sumer.

Sumer was an ancient civilization of Mesopotamia, in
the present day South Iraq, that reached the height of
its power under Akkadian dynasty, founded by Sargon
around 2340 B.C.

As we know, Sanchoniathon's Book, which is a
Phoenician account of genesis and cosmogony, clearly
points out that writing was invented by the Egyptians
and it was transmitted to the Phoenicians.

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    In Plato's Phaedrus (274 c-d), Socrates reminds Greek
collective memory that ta grammata, that is, "the
letters", "the writing systems" were first invented in
Kemet (i.e. Ancient Egypt,) thanks to the divine
principle known as Thoth.

Sir Arthur John Evans (1851-1941), a British
archaeologist, who unearthed remnants of the Bronze
Age Minoan civilization in Crete (an island of South
East Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea),
believed quite rightly that most of the Cretan glyphs
were borrowed from the Egyptian system of writing :
see his book entitles Scripta Minoa (Oxford :
Clarendon Press, 1909) with 132 illustrations, 13
plates and 26 tables.

2. New Data Found in Africa

This critical issue is now almost solved, thanks to
the excavations led by Dr. Günter Dreyer, Director of
the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo. The most
ancient written texts in world history were then dug
up at Abydos, in Upper Egypt. Some years ago, more
than 200 labels were found by Dr. Dreyer and his team.
It is a question of script because texts written, use
ideograms as phonograms, that is, signs have phonetic
value. These labels in ivory were dated by radiometric
methods, and they are older than Sumerian script,
which will give birth to the cuneiform system of

Let us specify that a given script is the visual
representation of a language, i.e. voice sounds. A
system of writing is an organized set of symbols or
written signs used to serve as material objects
representing invisible voice sounds. To write is to
form signs, i.e. characters or symbols on a surface
such as stone, wood, ivory, clay, papyrus, paper with
an instrument such as a chisel or a pen.

3. Actual Chronical Writing Chart in the World

The chronology for the four independent centers of
writing in world history is now as follows :

- Egyptian System of Writing : The earliest
hieroglyphic signs dating from about 3400 B.C. They
are already used for their sound values. This system
of writing was developed in three successive stages,
known as hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic.

- Sumerian Writing : about 3060 B.C.. The Sumerian
script was always on clay. The most ancient Sumerian
inscriptions on tokens and seals are difficult to read
because there is no firm relationship between sign and
language. From about 3000 B.C. wet clay were impressed
by means of a triangular shaped stylus, leaving a
wedge shaped mark. The Cuneiform Writing had thus come
into existence.

- Chinese Writing System : No later than the Shang
Dynasty, in 1766 B.C., the earliest Chinese
inscriptions found on bronze vessels and oracle bones
are already highly stylised. China has the longest
literary tradition that still continues today.

- Maya script : This is the script of the Maya
civilization of central America having been dated from
500 B.C. to 1200 A.D. A total of about 800 glyphs have
been identified.

4. Offsprings of Egyptian System of Writing in World History

The Egyptian system of writing gave birth to many
other scripts. Indeed, the Egyptian writing as both a
concept and a specific form, spread throughout the
region of Sinai and Canaan between 1700 and 1500 B.C., giving birth to Phoenician script, and Aramaic

The Aramaic writing system spread widely between the VIth B.C. to modern Hebrew script.

The Greek alphabet derives from the Phoenician one. It was the western Greek known as Chalcidian alphabet which spread through Italy and thus to Europe, beginning the basis of all modern European scripts.

Nigeria: Out of the compound

The Etruscan alphabet is an offshoot of the Greek
alphabet of Euboea.

Cyrillic, Glagolitic, Russian, Runic, and Roman
scripts all trace their origins back to the Greek

The writing used by the Tuareq for writing Tamasheq,
one of the Berber languages of North Africa, is
derived from the Old Numidian script, which is an
offshoot of the Punic script. This Berber script is
known as Tifinagh script. The Punic script was used in
the Phoenician colony of Carthage and other parts of
North Africa from the IXth century B.C. to the first
century A.D..

The Ge'ez language, which for many centuries served as
the language of the Ethiopia church and other literary
functions, and the Amharic, that is, the national
language of Ethiopia, are written with the Ethiopic
syllabic alphabet which suggests a connection with
other Semitic writings.

The Meroitic script is derived in the second Millenium
from the Egyptian writing known as demotic. This
script was used in Kush Kingdom during the Napataen
period in Nubia (Northern Sudan) until the IVth
century A.D. when it was gradually superseded by Old
Nubian Alphabet, which is in fact Greek alphabet like
Coptic alphabet. But the Meroitic language is little
understood (see Imhotep Newsletter – n¡2 "Meroitic
script and computer", San Francisco State University,
February 1999).

5. African Script Found Outside of the Nile Valley

There are various African writing systems studied ;
for example, by the following scholars :

- African Scripts by Cheikh Anta Diop (1954)

- Obe ri Okainme Script (Southern Nigeria) by Kathleen
Hau (1967)

- Indigenous Scripts of Liberia and Sierra Leone by
David Dalby (1967)

- Systematic Comparison between Egyptian Script and
Vai, Mende, Loma, Kpelle, Nsibidi, Bamun, and Gicandi
Scripts by Théophile Obenga (Paris, 1973)

- Writing, Text, and Africa by Simon Battestini

6. Conclusion

Africa is the cradle of writing for the following
facts :

a) Writing originated in the Nile Valley with texts
dated back to 3400 B.C., that is, labels in ivory
found at Abydos.

b) This was the Egyptian script which gave birth to
many other scripts still in use, such as Hebrew,
Greek, Ethiopic, and Roman alphabet.

c) The Sumerian and Cuneiform scripts were born and
died within Mesopotamia ; they were never used outside
Mesopotamia and the Near East.

d) The important theoretical issues concerning the
relationship between speech and writing, and the
scientific study of writing, must now take seriously
in account African variety of writing systems in a
global or multicultural perspective.

e) The scientific fields that are interested in
writing, as history and palaeography, psychology,
linguistics, and sociology, must now look more closely
to African writing systems, because Africa is not only
the cradle of all humans but also the cradle of
writing. The first human beings to write their mother
tongue were people of Kemet or Ancient Egypt.