Alice C. Linsley
Humans have shown great ingenuity in drawing and writing. The earliest written communications involved drawings. The surfaces used included the walls of rock shelters, animal skins, stone and shells. This shell was carved by a human living in Java about 500,000 years ago.
Ostrich egg shells are one of the earliest known surfaces used by humans to draw. Many examples of these have been found at paleolithic sites. These ostrich eggs are an example. They are about 70,000 years old.
Stones with identical markings to those on the ostrich shells have been found in caves in Southern Africa. This Blombos Stone dates to about 70,000 years ago.
At the Upper Paleolithic site of Ohalo II near the Sea of Galilee, archaeologists found wooden objects on brush-hut floors that appear to have symbolic markings. One incised wooden object (c. 23,000 BC) is identical in size and incision pattern to a gazelle bone implement found in a grave.
Prehistoric populations left marks on the walls of caves to provide directions to people passing that way. Some of these marks are recognized today as letters. Many words that share a similar meaning begin with an ancient mark. Consider the V. This mark indicates a parting of water ways. It suggests a place that spreads out, like a valley or a vale. It might signify a washout or a deposit of sediment, like a glacial varve. Or something that opens, like a vagina or a valve.
Typical marks include concentric circles, parallel lines (both vertical and horizontal), Y, V, X, and O and sometimes an X inside an O. The Y suggests a fork in the route ahead. The X indicates a place to cross or an intersection of routes. The O represented a day's time, or the solar arc from east to west.
One of the oldest known scripts is that of the Vinča Culture of present day Serbia and parts of Bulgaria and Romania, dated to the period 5700–4500 BC. This inscribed amulet was discovered in 1961 by archaeologist Nicolae Vlassa at a Neolithic site in the village of Tărtăria in modern Romania.
Papyrus reeds and wood were also used as writing surfaces. The wood document below dates to the reign of Amenhotep I, c. 1514-1493 BC.
Related reading: Symbols of Archaic Rock Shelters; Early Written Signs; The Edwin Smith Papyrus; How Parchment is Made