Around 5,000 years ago, when the first pharaohs were flexing their muscles in Egypt and the city-states of Mesopotamia were competing with one another for power and prestige, writing was invented for the first time - at least, the first time we can be sure about. In these two places, Mesopotamia and Egypt, writing was essentially an administrative technology that grew out of the need to keep track of things and the quantities of those things. The earliest examples of writing were more like an Excel spreadsheet or your grocery list than the precursor to an epic poem.
These early written texts are incredibly valuable tools for us, despite their focus on administrative details, for a whole variety of reasons. For the first time, we can move beyond the material remains of the past to something more intangible. That’s not nothing, and the emergence of writing has traditionally marked the distinction between prehistory and history. I think that distinction is at best unhelpful and at worst nonsensical, for a variety of reasons, but the distinction nevertheless exists.
The coolest thing that we learn from early written language, from my perspective, has to do with the languages themselves. For the first time, we have solid information about what languages people in the past were actually using. That information is often indirect and always incomplete. It’s never enough to answer all the questions we might have. And yet we can start to catch a few glimpses of something that’s pretty fundamental to human societies.
In Egypt, we can be certain that the language spoken at the time the first hieroglyphs were carved was an archaic form of Egyptian. It remained in use for many thousands of years afterward, evolving into Old, Middle, and Late Egyptian, and then Demotic and Coptic in more recent times. Conversely, we’re not actually sure what language the earliest proto-cuneiform writing of Mesopotamia represents. That’s because it’s purely pictographic; the signs bear no direct relationship to spoken language. Later cuneiform writing encoded Sumerian, which would have a long afterlife as a language of scholarship and religion in Mesopotamia even after it fell out of use as a living, spoken tongue. It’s often assumed Sumerian was spoken in places like Uruk around 3000 BC, but we can’t know for sure.
Sumerian was a language isolate, meaning that it had no known relatives. It’s possible that these relatives existed at the time, but were never written down. Perhaps it was the sole survivor of a broader family. Archaic Egyptian, by contrast, was a member of an enormous extended family: the Afroasiatic languages.
While Sumerian has been gone for a long time, and even the venerable Egyptian has fallen out of use as a spoken language, other Afroasiatic languages are still going strong today. Arabic, a member of the Semitic branch of the family, is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. Amharic, another Semitic language (though from a different sub-branch) is the lingua franca of Ethiopia. Other branches of Afro-Asiatic are scattered across Africa: the Chadic languages in West Africa, with Hausa the most important; the Cushitic and Omotic branches centered on Ethiopia; and Berber, spoken by some of the nomadic peoples of the Sahara.
When we systematically compare these various branches of Afroasiatic to one another - using what historical linguists call, obviously enough, “the comparative method” - we can work backwards toward the older ancestral forms these languages share in common, back toward their common ancestors. Comparing the various Semitic languages to one another, like Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, and so on, gets you back to Proto-Semitic - the common ancestor of all the later Semitic languages. Enough comparisons (Proto-Semitic and Archaic Egyptian, for example) can bring us all the way to the beginning, to Proto-Afroasiatic, the language ancestral to all the later Afro-Asiatic languages. Nobody wrote down Proto-Afroasiatic, or even Proto-Semitic; they existed before (long, long before, in the case of Proto-Afroasiatic) the invention of writing. The comparative method can give us insights into the deep past of our languages.
Under ideal circumstances, comparing the later branches of a language family systematically would give us a good sense of the phonology, syntax, and vocabulary of that ancient tongue. In the case of Proto-Indo-European, for example, we can get a pretty strong series of insights into the society that spoke the language: They were familiar with farming and herding, they knew about the wheel, and they had a pantheon of gods, over whom the sky god reigned supreme. Concepts like reciprocal relationships between guests and hosts were extremely important, and so too were hierarchical bonds up and down the social scale.
We can’t get anywhere close to this level of insight for Proto-Afroasiatic. Its branches are highly divergent, and some of them, like Omotic, are quite poorly understood even now. The biggest factor, however, is simply time. The most plausible argument for Proto-Indo-European has its late forms being spoken no earlier than 3,000 BC. By that time, Archaic Egyptian and Proto-Semitic - for which we don’t have direct written evidence - were about as distant from one another as Polish and Farsi today, perhaps more so. The further back in time we go, the more changes pile up in the descendant languages, making it harder and harder to work backward.
It’s impossible to tell exactly how old Proto-Afroasiatic is, or where it was spoken, but there are a few ideas. One hypothesis places it in the Levant, as the language of the Natufian hunter-gatherers who were the first to adopt a farming lifestyle more than 10,000 years ago. Another argues for the Red Sea coast of east Africa, opposite the Arabian Peninsula, at the same time or a bit earlier.
These are both plausible. The argument for a shared vocabulary of agricultural terms in the later Afroasiatic languages, which would’ve been inherited from Proto-Afroasiatic, isn’t especially strong; it’s most likely that the speakers of the language were foragers, not farmers or herders, which makes the Levant less likely. East Africa is a better possibility, but it’s hard to track migrations from there to the vicinity of Lake Chad in the Sahel.
I have an alternative theory: the eastern reaches of the Sahara, between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago.
As the Last Glacial Maximum gave way to better climatic conditions in the late Pleistocene and early Holocene, what had been desert grew warmer and wetter. This was the African Humid Period, when most of the Sahara wasn’t sand and rock but rolling grassland, savannah, and mixed forest. There were lakes and rivers, and grazers like giraffe and elephant could be found in what is today barely habitable desert. This early Holocene rock art from Tadrart Acacus, in western Libya, depicts some of those animals:
Under these conditions, the Green Sahara would have been a paradise for foragers, with plenty of available resources for exploitation. A new group moving into that area as the climate improved could have multiplied their numbers rapidly, splintering into breakaway communities that traveled on and lost contact with one another. A vast, hospitable grassland is essentially a highway for mobile foragers; if this were the case, it would be easy to see how one group might end up as far away as Lake Chad in the west, while others would have set up shop in the Ethiopian Highlands or along the Nile. Another group would have migrated either to the Red Sea coast and then across to Arabia, or gone via the Sinai Peninsula and then traveled south. Arabia, like the Sahara, would have been much more inviting around this time. It’s not hard to imagine people spreading out along blossoming rivers, fishing in the lakes, hunting on the savannahs, and slowly falling out of touch.
Eventually, of course, the Sahara got much drier. It’s hard for us to imagine it as anything other than an inhospitable desert, but 10,000 or so years ago, it would’ve been one of the best places on the planet to live.
Anyway, this is just my theory, but I think it fits the climatic, archaeological, and linguistic evidence reasonably well. Language can be a powerful and fascinating tool for understanding the deep human past, even before the invention of writing. It’s one key piece of a difficult and hard-to-grasp puzzle.
I wrote a book! It's called The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World. The book comes out in July, but you can pre-order it here.