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Writing as Technology and Cultural Ecology

Explorations of the Human Mind at the Dawn of History


Harald Haarmann

Writing is unanimously regarded as a marker of civilization in the sense of ‘civilization as high culture’. This insight has never been seriously questioned. What makes writing a marker of civilization is more than its mere function as an information technology. Those who possess writing have always been aware that, beyond the practical use of rendering ideas and words in the written code, it constitutes the realm of symbolic values that make writing an ingredient of cultural ecology. In order to perceive the magnitude of the art of writing as a communicational tool designed by the inventive mind, it is necessary to shed light on the cultural conditions in human communities that further the motivation of early writing. The present outline therefore does not only focus on a formal description of the ancient scripts as an information technology but also on the evolution of human symbol-making and on an inspection of the sociocultural conditions which made the elaboration of a system of visual communication – of first writing – possible.
Contents: Elementary parameters in the study of ancient writing systems · Sign systems as constructs of the abstract mind – Conditions for the transition to literacy – deconstructing a Euro-American myth – Writing technology emerging in the absence of statehood (Danube civilization, the ancient Indus civilization, ancient China, Olmec civilization) – Writing technology and cultural ecology in societies of the state model (pre-dynastic Egypt, the early Sumerian city states, Teotihuacán in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica) – Ancient scripts and their principles of writing – The composition and systematic structuring of sign inventories – The dissemination and proliferation of ancient scripts.