As people long ago settled into patterns of raising their own food—tending herds and flocks, and planting and harvesting crops—they looked for places with fertile soil, reliable sources of water, and safety from dangerous animals, including other people. Many of these ideal settlements were in the river valleys of Asia and north Africa. In China, India, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, settlements grew until they had become small kingdoms, societies knit together by their common needs and desires.
Plentiful food made specialization possible. Some people focused on the crops and others on the flocks and herds. Still others helped to build houses and enclosures for the animals. Some made tools. Others made clothing from plant fibers and animal skins or fur. Some specialized in the arts, including story-telling; they maintained the histories of their people and also their religious beliefs. Some specialized in leadership; beginning as heads of families and of clans, they became the ruling class of their small nations. Some specialized in hunting and in military protection of their settlements. Some became priests and spiritual leaders, keeping the people in tune with God as they understood God.
Eventually, all these river valley settlements developed written language. Sumer, in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) appears to be the earliest place where humans wrote, although the Harappan civilization in India may have begin writing around the same time. Although the earliest records were probably inventories of food and other items being preserved, soon the same symbols were adapted to record other information that people were determined to preserve. One of the oldest documents found in Sumer is a recipe for brewing beer.
Literacy did not remain an ability of the privileged elite. Egyptian Pharaohs erected public monuments in their cities and at the borders of their land, telling people what they had accomplished. Hammurabi, king of a Sumerian city called Babylon, had the laws of his government carved in stone and placed prominently in his city. These practices indicate that many people living in those places were able to read. Some ancient writings have been preserved, not because of planning, but by fortunate happenstance. Temporary records scratched into clay tablets in western Asia were cooked when the cities caught fire, being hardened for long-term preservation. During the Shang Dynasty in China, people with questions about the future wrote those questions on animal bones. Religious specialists then heated the bones in fire until they cracked; the cracks running through the questions provided answers by means of the specialists. Although we do not know how they determined their answers, we know what questions people were asking in ancient China, which is splendid information for historians.
Many records have been lost over time, because they were written on materials that disintegrated. Others cannot be read because no one today knows those ancient languages. Ancient Egyptian can be read only because of a stone found in Egypt that contains the same message in three languages, including Greek. The Harappan language of ancient India and some of the written languages of the western hemisphere remain mysteries because no similar key has been found to interpret them.
Other civilizations did not bother trying to preserve the written word. In many places, unfavorable climate guaranteed that no written materials would last for generations. Africa, the South Pacific, and parts of the western hemisphere relied largely on oral tradition rather than a written record. For a long time, historians were suspicious of oral tradition. They figured it changed from generation to generation, much as spoken messages are changed from person to person in contemporary cultures. People who never relied on writing improved their memory skills; story-tellers in those cultures were able to maintain reliable versions of ancient narratives because their communities expected that skill from them. Today, historians place far more trust on the oral traditions of such societies; they combine that information with archaeological discoveries and accounts written by visitors to those societies to develop a comprehensive historical record of those nations.
Record-keeping practices constantly change. Electronic storage of information is still new, but the switch from scrolls to codices (the modern form of the book, with a spine and a cover) happened roughly two thousand years ago without bringing history to an end. Record management specialists and archivists continue to refine their skills at preserving digital information. Much will still be lost, as many books and papers are lost, and many ancient documents have disappeared. What is most valuable, though, will be saved. Future generations will study us to learn about our successes, our failures, our hopes and dreams, our fears, and our perceptions of ourselves. We may seem as strange to them as the ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, Harappans, and Chinese seem to us today. In the most important ways, though, we will all be the same, because we all are human. J.