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What Is The Oldest Written Text That Has Ever Been Found?

The oldest confirmed writing is on an ancient Sumerian artifact, but the road to its creation is long and fascinating.

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Dr. Russell Moul

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Dr. Russell Moul

Science Writer

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology.

Science Writer

A stone surface with cuneiform words written into it showing the distinct wedge shaped impressions.

The oldest form of writing is cuneiform, which was developed by the Sumerians and was used by various people in the ancient Middle East. Image credit: Will Rodrigues/Shutterstock. 

Ever wonder what the oldest written text that has ever been found is? Needless to say, it’s pretty old, but humans have been communicating about their experiences and reality for millennia. It just wasn’t written down in ways we would recognize today – writing emerged as a process. 

The evolution of written language

The oldest form of visual communication can be seen in ancient caves scattered across the world. Cave paintings are a form of representation that humans used to record their experiences of specific events or things. However, they don’t tend to be seen as specifically forming a linguistic message and so are more often regarded as part of the pictorial art traditions.


Yet if some of the pictures come to consistently represent certain meanings, then they start to become pictograms. So a circle with lines shooting out of it might represent the sun; or a stick figure with two legs, a circle for a head, and two other sticks for arms may be a human; or a jagged line could be a lightning bolt. As long as other people are able to recognize what they indicate and can replicate them for similar purposes then they function as a form of communication. For instance, today you can use an image of a knife and fork to indicate a restaurant or a picture of an airplane can indicate an airport.

These images relate to things that exist in the world or are discrete in their own nature, but if the sun representation evolves and starts encompassing concepts such as heat, warmth, light, and daytime too, then it has become an ideogram. Ideograms capture the meaning of abstract notions that are not always secure in the real world. Both pictograms and ideograms tend to be free of language constraints too. In that their point of reference is usually readily available regardless of what language you speak (within reason) – the sun symbol represents the same sun regardless of whether you speak French, Japanese, or English and we can all appreciate the concepts of heat, light, and warmth.

Many ancient languages are thought to have begun with simpler pictogram or ideogram representations that stayed in use for centuries. Both Egyptian hieroglyphics and Chinese writing contain pictograms that evolved into more abstract meanings. Once a symbol becomes sufficiently removed from a physical ­thing it is easier to see it as a word in a language. When symbols are used to represent specific words in a language, then they become logograms. Logograms form the foundation of many of the earliest true writing systems, including languages in the Near East, China, and Central America. 

The first writing?

The earliest confirmed form of writing is recorded on a limestone tablet, known as the Kish tablet, which dates to around 3,500 BCE. The tablet was found on the site of an ancient Sumerian city called Kish, which is located in modern-day Iraq. The writing on its surface is purely pictographic and represents a mid-point between proto-writing and more sophisticated syllabic writing of the cuneiform (meaning “wedged shaped”) script. This remarkable object probably pre-dates Egyptian hieroglyphs by several centuries, and so appears to be the oldest recognized and decipherable written system used by humans.


Cuneiform was the most widespread and historically significant written system in the ancient Middle East and was used by numerous and different cultures – including the Assyrians, Akkadians, and the Babylonians – who had their own spoken languages. The writing was created by pushing reed styluses into a moist clay to create wedge-shaped indents that, when combined in different ways, could stand for different spoken syllables that formed distinct words when put together. Later, scribes would chisel cuneiform into all sorts of stone objects too.

The writing system was in use for around 3,000 years and produced hundreds of thousands of clay tablets and inscribed objects. It was only in the early 19th century, however, that archaeologists rediscovered many of them and effort turned to making deciphering and translating their meaning.


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