Tuesday 1 August 2023

Africa’s Oldest Written Languages

When I was in high school, we were taught that the Sumerians were the first to use a written script about 5000 years ago, and that written languages spread out from there to the rest of the world. However, scholars now recognize that writing was independently developed in at least five ancient civilizations: Mesopotamia (between 3400 and 3100 BC), Egypt (around 3250 BC), China (2000 BC),lowland Mesoamerica (by 650 BC), and Peru (perhaps as early as 2700 BC). 

Now archaeological evidence suggests that writing started much earlier in other parts of Africa. Except for Egypt, Africa has been ignored in traditional history texts about written languages, but the evidence is there to suggest that this comes from prejudice, not proper scientific study and, like so many prejudices, is wrong.

The oldest scripts in the world to be discovered so far were found at the Kharga oasis in what was Nubia and is now part of present-day Sudan. They were written in what is called the Proto Saharan language. Extraordinarily, they date from 5000 BC.  Since Sumerian and other Asian written languages appear about 3000 BC and Greek script was not fully in use until 1400 BC, it appears from this evidence that the Proto-Saharan written language is at least two thousand years older.  

Other written tablets were found at Ge’ez in Ethiopia that are up to 3000 years old and yet, astonishingly, that ancient script is still in use, as the main liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox churches and the Jewish community. The vast proportion of inherited nouns are unchanged, and even spelled identically in both Geสฝez and Amharic. The Ge’ez script is certainly the oldest written language that is still in use. The closest living languages to Geสฝez are Amharic, Tigre and Tigrinya, and in the oral tradition of those peoples, Ge’ez is the oldest language of humans.

Most of the languages of Northern Africa are classified as Afro-Asiatic and this shows the influences of both European and Middle Eastern languages due to migrations, warfare and religious subjugation but there is a surviving ancient tongue in the region:  the Tifinagh of the Tuareg people and it has a written form that dates back at least 1500 years. The Tuareg believe themselves to be the descendants of a queen, Tin HInan, known as the mother of us all to the Tuareg, whose tomb was found in 1925. According to legend, Tin Hinan was a fugitive princess who was driven from her home in the northern Sahara. She and her followers nearly perished in the desert but were saved by ants when they stumbled upon grains buried in desert anthills. 

The Val and Mende written languages of Liberia and Sierra Leone have been found at the site of Goundaka in Mali, that date back to about 3000 BC so they are also at least as old as the Sumerian written language.

Other written languages existed in Southern Africa, including the Adinkra of the Akan people of Ghana. The symbols of Adrinka are still used today on cloth but may have existed for thousands of years. 

Another old written language is Nsibidi of Nigeria and W.Central Africa where early forms are found on excavated pottery that is at least 1500 years old. More studies are necessary to see if these written languages are actually far older.

And many other written languages ….

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