Last week, I introduced a conundrum regarding Egypt and Mesopotamia. The question remains, “Why did both Mesopotamia and Egypt become literate simultaneously (at least as far as we can determine from artifacts)?” One logical hypothesis would be that one of the two regions was invaded by a sizable group from the other, and the written language came with them. Another logical hypothesis would be that trade was rapidly growing between the two, and traders from one country brought a language script to the other. But, there is a difficulty to both hypotheses: the written languages (scripts) were different. Mesopotamians developed Cuneiform. Egypt developed Hieroglyphics, Cursive Hieroglyphics, and Hieratic.
If a script was imposed upon all or part of Egypt, then why did three forms of script arise? Of course, it’s notable that we in the modern world do have a printed form and a cursive form of our language(s), so we can understand the first two forms of Hieroglyphics. And we have various forms of Shorthand. But, why Hieratic, which seems redundant, not a shorthand? If the Egyptian and Sumerian languages include a phonetic alphabet among other signs, and they do, then they both could be used (or adapted) to write any language. So, were the spoken forms of Mesopotamian and Egyptian similar? Not in the least.
Afro-Asiatic Family of Languages Map. Source
Ancient Egyptian is considered a Semitic offshoot of Proto-Afro-Asiatic with some structural relationships to Arabic (which came far later), perhaps through the Amorite Bedouin in the fast-desiccating Arabian Peninsula (once livable savanna) of the Holocene, after the 5,900 Kiloyear Event. Perhaps the linguistic connection between the Amorite Bedouin and the ancient Egyptians was as simple as it looks (Occam’s Razor): some Semitic-speaking tribes would surely have left the Nile and entered the blossoming savanna of Arabia, during the wet (Pluvial) stage of the Holocene, and some of those might have returned to the Nile as the Sahara recycled to its desert form, drying out the downwind Arabian peninsula as collateral damage. But others of these tribes would have remained and accommodated their lifestyle to the increasing aridification.
The contemporaneous Mesopotamian language was Sumerian, which has not been identified with any larger language group, but rather seems to be a one-of-a-kind Language Isolate, a Creole of several languages (see EndNote 1). Some think one of those component languages (perhaps the dominant one) was Proto-Indo-European (see EndNote 2). The map below describes the spread of Proto-Indo-European (PIE), according to the Kurgan Hypothesis. You will note within the blue ellipse in the map below that the PIE vector southeast of the Caspian Sea enters Mesopotamia through the Zagros Mountains (on the north side of the Tigris River) from Iran. You’ll also note that PIE has a short vector from the Ukraine into Anatolia (leading to the Hittite Empire and others), wherein lie the Tigris and Euphrates headwaters. These PIE vectors support the postulated early influence of PIE (see EndNote 2) upon the proto-Sumerian language.
Proto-Indo-European spreads from its homeland, including into Mesopotamia. Credit.
As a consequence, we now have substantial evidence that the Ancient Egyptian Language and the Proto-Sumerian Language are not related structurally. The only unanswered remnant of the original question regarding the surprising simultaneity of these first two language scripts is whether either Egypt or Mesopotamia shared their idea of scripting their languages with the other, in any way, before the other had thought of it. This, I will leave unanswered for lack of evidence. Nonetheless, I must point out that the archaeological artifacts of Mesopotamia’s Uruk civilization seem far ahead of Egypt’s Naqadans in the 4th millennium BC, as does Uruk’s predecessor Ubaid culture outstrip the Nile culture in the 5th millennium BC. The only remaining conundrum is the largest: a literate, organized, and productive proto-dynastic Egypt popping out of the magician’s hat on steroids. I haven’t found a credible hypothesis for this, yet. Before I conclude this week’s installment, I want to recall to your attention that the Holocene has seen huge swings in weather, with concomitant enrichment and impoverishment of large swaths of geography e.g. severe drought, then rainfall adequate for a productive savanna, then back to severe drought for the Sahara and lands downwind (east) of the Sahara. These swings in weather have produced major changes in the migrations and acculturation of peoples in all periods of man’s existence, and markedly during the Holocene, about which you and I have access to the most data, and I address in this web site and blog. Egypt is the Sahara Desert’s eastern boundary. Weather moves West to East in the middle latitudes of the northern hemisphere. The Sahara cycles between long periods of sufficient rain to nourish a savanna, with lakes, drawing sub-Saharan wildlife north. Giraffes, elephants, lions, antelope, and their fellow travelers move north and live in the Sahara. During this lush period, the desert might shrink into a narrow band on the north side of the savanna. Then the Sahara recycles to even longer periods of desertification. Lakes dry up. Wildlife go south as the narrow strip of desert widens toward the south. Ground water goes deeper, more and more wells dry up, until large swaths are uninhabitable. We’ve all seen movies which feature the Tuareg people in the Saharan badlands (in the Berber language group of the Afro-Asiatic family), some of the toughest people on earth. Then the cycle begins again. This cyclical phenomena certainly is affected by Ice Ages which take a lot of the water out of the sea and air (see heading “Many Big Floods” in Post #25). But it is also linked to the monsoons affecting Africa. The Sahara Pump Theory incorporates the impact of cyclical glaciation with the African monsoon to offer a more comprehensive explanation. Its study is worth your while. Here’s a splendid Timeline of Environmental History that will serve as a single bookmark and convenient refresher on this subject of Paleoclimatology. Thanks for visiting this week. Please feel free to comment about this and earlier posts in this blog, and about other pages in this Raising Up Pharaoh website. To comment, you can use the Reply boxes beneath each post, or send an email to me at rejburke@RaisingUpPharaoh.com. Your feedback (as a registered user) will help me better know your interests, and respond to them either in the website or by email.
- “It has also been suggested that the Sumerian language descended from a late Paleolithic creole language (Høyrup 1992). However, no conclusive evidence, only some typological features, can be found to support Høyrup’s view.” Credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sumerian_language
- “A more widespread hypothesis posits a Proto-Euphratean language that preceded Sumerian in Southern Mesopotamia and exerted an areal influence on it, especially in the form of polysyllabic words that appear “un-Sumerian” – making them suspect of being loanwords –, and are not traceable to any other – known – language. There is little speculation as to the affinities of this substratum language, or these languages, and it is thus best treated as unclassified. Researchers such as Gonzalo Rubio disagree with the assumption of a single substratum language and argue that several languages are involved. A related proposal by Gordon Whittaker is that the language of the proto-literary texts from the Late Uruk period (c. 3350–3100 BC) is really an early Indo-European language which he terms “Euphratic”.” Credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sumerian_language