For thousands of years, the ancient egyptians hieroglyphics inscribed on tombs, papyri and, in some cases, pyramids.
But when were hieroglyphs invented? Research shows that they emerged about 5,200 years ago, around the same time that another writing system, called cuneiform, was invented. Mesopotamia.
“German excavations at Abydos in Egypt have revealed hieroglyphic inscriptions from (around) 3200 BC.” James Allenhe told LiveScience in an email. Similarly, Luis Morenzprofessor of Egyptology at the University of Bonn in Germany, told LiveScience in an email that Egyptian hieroglyphs were created “around 3300/3200 BC.”
Allen said that “the hieroglyphic system first appears quite formed, either because its beginnings were inscribed in perishable materials (which have not survived) or because it was invented by an unknown genius.”
Related: How old is ancient Egypt?
Why were hieroglyphs invented?
Why hieroglyphics were invented is a matter of debate, Marc Van De Mieroopprofessor of history at Columbia University, wrote in the second edition of his book “A history of ancient Egypt” (John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2021).
At the time hieroglyphics were invented, Egypt was being unified into a single state and administration may have been a reason for its invention. “It is logical that a state of the size and complexity of Egypt requires a flexible accounting system that can maintain information about the nature of the goods, their quantities, origin and destination, the people in charge of them and the date of the transaction,” said Van De. Mieroop wrote in his book.
Another theory is that hieroglyphs were invented to help glorify the gods and the king, Van De Mieroop wrote, noting that some of the earliest carvings depicting kings contain hieroglyphs. “The glorification of the king may have been one of the driving forces behind the invention of the script,” he wrote.
What is the oldest living writing system?
The Egyptians created hieroglyphics around the same time cuneiform writing was invented in Mesopotamia. Which system was invented first is a topic of debate among scholars.
Allen maintains that Egyptian hieroglyphics were invented first and says that the first cuneiform inscriptions date to around 2900 BC. C. However, many scholars disagree.
For example Orly Goldwasser, a professor of Egyptology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem wrote that cuneiform writing probably developed first. “Based on the available evidence, it is most likely that writing originated in Mesopotamia,” Goldwasser wrote in a chapter of the book.The Land of the Pharaoh and Beyond: Ancient Egypt and Its Neighbors” (Oxford University Press, 2017).
In any case, cuneiform writing and hieroglyphics are quite different and the two systems appear to have developed independently of each other. “Cuneiform writing and hieroglyphs are too different for one to have directly influenced the other,” Allen said. Cuneiform signs “represent words or complete syllables,” while hieroglyphs “represent individual words or consonants” and do not represent vowels, Allen noted.
While there was some contact between the peoples of Egypt and Mesopotamia, hieroglyphs developed within the Nile Valley, Morenz said. Goldwasser wrote that while the two systems are quite different, the invention of cuneiform writing in Mesopotamia may have helped inspire the Egyptians to invent hieroglyphics.
The last known Egyptian hieroglyphic inscription dates from the year 394 AD, according to the University of Memphis in Tennessee. At that time, other writing systems, such as Coptic, were used in Egypt. The knowledge of how to read and write hieroglyphics was lost and it was not until the 19th century, with the deciphering hieroglyphswhich were read again.