Early Writing

A cognitive archaeological perspective on literacy and numeracy.


  • Karenleigh A. Overmann




early writing systems, Mesopotamia, literacy, numeracy, extended cognition


This inquiry seeks to understand how the original form of writing in Mesopotamia—the small pictures and conventions of protocuneiform— became cuneiform, a script that could not be read without acquiring the neurological and behavioral reorganizations understood today as literacy. The process is described as involving small neurological and behavioral changes realized, accumulated, and distributed to new users through in- teractions with and concomitant incremental changes in the material form of writing. A related inquiry focuses on why and how numerical notations differ from other written signs. Crucially, numerical signs instantiate their meaning, a representational mode that contrasts with the signification used to represent non-numerical language and which makes numerical notations contiguous with their unwritten precursors, technologies like fingers, tallies, and counters. Instantiation is related to the perceptual system for quantity; this so-called number sense influences the function and form of numerical signs. Reading is then discussed as a cognitive activity that necessarily in- volves a material form, a plausible example of extended cognition. Because numerical notations share function and often form with precursor technolo- gies, if the former participate in extended cognition, the latter likely do as well. In conjunction with the contiguity between numerical notations and their unwritten precursors, this complicates the idea that (all) writing is (just) language. Finally, potential follow-on research is suggested.






Journal Article