Cuneiform “receipts” predate writing, still a scientific mystery.

One of the earliest known forms of writing is what scientist (or according to Wikipedia) call cuneiform. From my memory of studying linguistic Anthropology, the emergence of language is often associated with early commercial transactions. Merchants would trade over long distances through an intermediary (or several messengers) who finalized the transaction by delivering the goods together with a “receipt.” The “receipt” has been described as a sealed container that could not be tampered with inconspicuously. For example, if a purchaser was buying twelve cows he would expect to receive a tamper-proof vessel with twelve objects representing the twelve cows purchased.

Naturally, it piqued my interest when I stumbled upon this article about researchers in Mesopotamia studying “clay balls” used for record-keeping, 200 years before writing was invented. The article describes the balls as the “very first data storage system” and as sealed “envelopes” containing a variety of geometrical shapes. It goes on to mention these clay balls are believed to have been used to record economic transaction, yet the utility of the clay balls is still a mystery given the fact they predate the existence of writing. Read more about why scientist are having trouble deciphering the “code” found inside these “receipts” on the Live Science website.