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11 Ancient African Writing Systems That Demolish the Myth That Black People Were Illiterate

The importance of oral culture and tradition in Africa and the recent dominance of European languages through colonialism, among other factors, has led to the misconception that the languages of Africa either have no written form or have been put to writing only very recently.

However, Africa has the world’s oldest and largest collection of ancient writing systems. The evidence dates to prehistoric times and can be found in multiple regions of the continent.

By contrast, continental Europe’s oldest writing, Greek, was not fully in use untilroughly 1400 B.C. (a clay tablet found in Iklaina, Greece) and is largely derived from an older African script.

The oldest Asian writing, proto-cuneiform, dates to around 3000 B.C. (clay texts found at Jemdet Nasr). However, the oldest known African writing systems are several centuries older.

Here are 11 African writing systems you should know about to dispel the myth that Africans were illiterate people.

 

Oued Mertoutek engravingProto-Saharan (5000–3000 B.C.)

Dr. Clyde Winters, author of “The Ancient Black Civilizations of Asia,” wrote that before the rise of the Egyptians and Sumerians there was a wonderful civilization in the fertile African Sahara, where people developed perhaps the world’s oldest known form of writing.

These inscriptions of what some archaeologists and linguists have termed “proto-Saharan,” near the Kharga Oasis west of what was considered Nubia, may date back to as early as  5000 B.C.

What people are saying

45 thoughts on “11 Ancient African Writing Systems That Demolish the Myth That Black People Were Illiterate

  1. Dwayne Jackson says:

    What? No nay-sayers on this one?!

  2. Frederic Birota says:

    Interesting.

  3. Keep the truth coming. I do not believe a great group of people such as Africans have no history of civilization.

  4. Patrick Tissue-Cat DeDonder says:

    I can't find anything to back up the claim that Vai is an ancient script. Omniglot and Wikipedia both say it was invented in the 19th century, and all I found claiming otherwise was a post on a wordpress blog. But I agree that people definitely downplay Africa's importance in the development of writing systems.

  5. Dwayne Jackson says:

    Omniglot gives 2 possible theories of the Vai script's history, and one of the theories states it came from ancient pictographs (which is writing). The other theory comes from a white man who claims he was told that a Black man had a dream about a white man sent by other white men who gave him a book, and thus he was given a written language which he forgot when he woke up and had some friends help him make some new symbols for the book given in the dream.

    And which is more plausible to you?

  6. Dwayne Jackson says:

    Omniglot gives 2 possible theories of the Vai script's history, and one of the theories states it came from ancient pictographs (which is writing). The other theory comes from a white man who claims he was told that a Black man had a dream about a white man sent by other white men who gave him a book, and thus he was given a written language which he forgot when he woke up and had some friends help him make some new symbols for the book given in the dream.

    And which is more plausible to you?

  7. Dwayne Jackson says:

    Excuse me for "sounding" a bit harsh or critical of your response, but you saying "I can't find anything to back up the claim that Vai is an ancient script" comes off a bit disingenuous in light of one of the sources from which you quote.

  8. Is this a jpke or somethin. Africans have been writin so long ago, at least 200,000 years, we not even sure exactly when writin came ingo existence. We do know civilations existed millions of years before the Nile Valley Civilian Period (250,000). Recent exposed findings on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean will surly bring more info on the history of writing to the light.

  9. Um, The Sinai is not on the African Continent

  10. Theodora Anagor says:

    Um Yes it is, at least it was before European invasion. In fact the whole middle east was North East Africa.

  11. Vlad Donciu says:

    If we're talking about Egypt, Nubia and then somewhat later on Ethiopia, then no, these places had alphabets. Sub Saharan Africa did not however, as for the (whole?) Middle East being North East Africa, that is bullshit.

  12. Vlad Donciu No, many Greek writers considered present day middle east "Ethiopia" a term meaning people with burnt faced skinned. This has confused some scholars as the areas we now call the middle east where part of an extension of Africa.

  13. The Sinai is indeed apart of Africa it is in Egypt. You can go to your local store and get a map. They are not that cheap

  14. Vincent Meadows Just because It is part of Egypt, it doesn't mean it's Africa. For example, Istanbul is a part of Turkey, doesn't mean Istanbul is Asia. Also, Siberia is part of Russia, but not Europe. The Sinai, particularly at the time of the Proto-Sinaitic script, was not populated by Africans. It was populated by Canaanites, which the Egyptians considered "Asiatics". Look at your aforementioned map. Sinai is separated from Egypt by the Suez Canal, And is completely connected to Asia. What's more, the people who wrote the Inscriptions were Canaanites, not Egyptians.

  15. Vincent Meadows Just because It is part of Egypt, it doesn't mean it's Africa. For example, Istanbul is a part of Turkey, doesn't mean Istanbul is Asia. Also, Siberia is part of Russia, but not Europe. The Sinai, particularly at the time of the Proto-Sinaitic script, was not populated by Africans. It was populated by Canaanites, which the Egyptians considered "Asiatics". Look at your aforementioned map. Sinai is separated from Egypt by the Suez Canal, And is completely connected to Asia. What's more, the people who wrote the Inscriptions were Canaanites, not Egyptians.

  16. Kohan Killetz Segal "Just because It is part of Egypt, it doesn't mean it's Africa." Yes it is. Why? Because Egypt historical has been apart of Africa (and still is ) Again I'm pretty sure maps only cost around 5 bucks. And if you read the article it states the script was found throughout Egypt. well into the interior of the Nile, which at the time was probably much more populace and diverse given the size of green Sahara which began to change into more of a desert it is today. This language falls under the Semitic branch in the Afroasiatic language family. So these people are not drastically different.

  17. Bwire Vincent says:

    Vlad Donciu In the Bible, nowhere is it mentioned, that Abraham, or Jesus' parents used a boat, to go to Egypt.

  18. Shawn Mc says:

    Bwire Vincent the stories of the bible are factual to you ?
    what about the story with the whale ?

  19. Shawn Mc says:

    I was hoping it was going to reveal something new and not more information on egypt and ethiopia.

  20. Vlad Donciu says:

    Vincent Meadows Nonsense. Herodotus clearly knew that Ethiopia was to the south of Nubia, and south of Egypt generally speaking across from the southwestern tip of Arabia. As for the middle east, he clearly states that the Persians were the rulers at the time of his life in the region of Babylon, that previously it was ruled by Assyria. Neither Assyrians or Persians or any other ancient African tribe ever ruled Babylon, the people of the region were Semitic, Hurrian, Indo-Iranian with language isolate groups like the Sumerians and Elamites existing too. The Middle East was considered to be part of Asia, never Africa. You need to learn history from more credible sources, not from propaganda.

  21. Vlad Donciu says:

    Shawn Mc The bible is the worst pseudo historical resource you can ever use. Three quarters of the historical events found in it are total fantasy, the rest are re-scripted history meant to fit its agenda. History you get from archeology and from studying many documents about a region, and comparing them all to kind of get a better picture of things.

  22. Vlad Donciu says:

    Vincent Meadows http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herodotus#mediaviewer/File:Herodotus_world_map-en.svg Nope, the Greek sources clearly place the middle east in Asia. This is the map by Herodotus, one of the earliest Greeks to try and map the world. Asia is clearly marked, while Africa is named Libya after the Libu tribe who lived west of Egypt.

  23. Bwire Vincent says:

    Shawn Mc I am not so sure if I understood Vlad, but I was under the impression that he denies the possibility of Africa and the middle east, ever having been connected by land.
    '… as for the (whole?) Middle East being North East Africa, that is bullshit…'

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suez_Canal

    My point was, even the bible acknowledges the fact, fact or fiction…

  24. Vlad Donciu says:

    Vincent Meadows Cool, so we have some obscure quotes from Greek myths, myth is the worst thing to ever base your knowledge of history on. Something else. The middle east, Judea/Israel, Assyria, Persia and so on were NEVER Africa. A fact is a fact. Assyrians, Babylonians, Elamites, Hebrews were not Sub Saharan Africans.

  25. Vlad Donciu says:

    Vincent Meadows As for D'mt, some say it was a vassal state of Saba, if not actually part of it, and then there is the counter argument for Saba being a proto-Ethiopian vassal. But I digress, the middle east is in Asia and was never part of Africa. The Sinai has belonged to Egypt since time immemorial, so weather or not it is part of Africa is questionable, let's say it is. Babylon was never Africa.

  26. Vlad Donciu says:

    Vincent Meadows Amharic script bears a resemblance to the writing system of ancient Saba, it may have been influenced by it in fact.

  27. Vlad Donciu I just wrote about two different empirical forces that extended beyond modern continental Africa? Again maps folks they don't cost that much. And When did I say Assyrians, Babylonians, Elamites, and Hebrews Were Africans? Again READ what I said THEN create an Argument. They term "Ethiopia" has been used by European scholars,( post Greek included) to call other areas of the world Ethiopians ( who were not actually Africans) including Native Americans. OBVIOUSLY they were wrong. Which was my original point. The term can be confusing to those who do not study the history of the various regions.

    The Term "Middle East" is relatively new and was based on European navigation. This doesn't tell you much about the various areas of The Arab peninsula and modern day Sinai region. The empire of Abyssinia was no fly by night culture it was written about in the Quran, Bible and the Torah(this about actually events not religious stories.) They had tremendous control over trading routes and had a controlled network the extended into modern day Yemen (apart of Arabia).

    The myth was to address my original point which the Greeks didn't have much of an understand of the various areas and the peoples. Egypt had already developed fully as a culture before most of the Greek writers you mention were even born.

  28. M.h. Rabouin says:

    The author mis-named the KMT Mdu NTR as so-called egyptian hieroglyphic writing. Mdu NTR looks to be in use much longer than current evidence suggests, as the egyptologists say it came into use "whole cloth"between the so-called dynasties 1-3. Which makes no sense. They have attempted to ascribe it to anything, anyone BUT the so-called AFRICAN people who were the original KMTw.

  29. Would you like to know about Ethiopia? The whole continent of the so-called Africa was documented and known as an Ethiopia. The so-called Greek Philosophers were made a clear writing about Ethiopia. Herodotus, Plato, Homer, Aristotle, and so on… The Egyptian which the Greek renamed the land during Alexander the ungreat! the land was used to be called Misir (is a Geez word meaning lentils), or Kemit (Geez word meaning Kam, father of Cusi). About Geez alphabets, it existed 5800 B.C. (not 800 B.C.). The writing system was started as Sabian. The Meaning Ethiopia is not as they tinted as burnt face, but it is Ethiopic word which is driven out from Ethiops meaning perfection or the upper of higher peace and love. Yes, the word Utopia is driven out from Ethiopia!

  30. thank you Theodora for setting him straight.

  31. thank you Theodora for setting him straight.

  32. Great article…loved it..
    Although you can't put all the ancient scripts in such a brief article you did miss a few key major Afrosemetic and Afrohametic languages like paleo-Hebrew for example, a language that changed the world as we know it and although the script has changed the language is still in use today giving us key insight into the major faith systems of the modern world…

    I look forward to the next post… Keep it up!
    Blessed Heart of love

  33. I'm not at all an expert, but how is "a white main claims ___" implausible? Mormonism is entirely based off the claim that some dude dreamed about finding golden tablets, and Wicca is based off the claim that some guy was taught impossibly ancient secrets about an incredibly ancient religion (that somehow escaped Christian persecution for centuries). The claim is more than consistent with 19th century practices, so I don't find a 19th-century origin implausible at all. It would HARDLY be the first Victorian fakery.

    I'm not trying to claim that Vai is fake, by the way, but you DID ask "which is more plausible," after all, so clearly you needed an explanation of WHY the 1820s explanation is actually plausible.

    Also, a writing system doesn't have to be ancient to be legitimate. Tolkein's Elvish writing systems are a beautiful example of this. Hangul (Korean) is another example, though it's older than the Elvish systems, but as a writing system, it only dates back to the 15th century CE and was deliberately created. So even if Vai is a newer script, that doesn't somehow diminish its importance. It just means it doesn't belong on a list of "Ancient African writing systems" and instead should be celebrated as a "newer African innovation."

  34. Kathryn Smith Age dose add "weight" to cultural elements like language. Europeans to justify their subjugation of Africa and her people. At best would portray Africans as backwards humans in need of civilizing at worst clever humanoid animals would benefit from domestication. For years the building of Great Zimbabwe was attributed t an unknown and most definitely not indigenous African people. If Vai is centuries or millenia old or derived from earlier writing that fell into disuse for some reason. It is another blow to the backwards African myth. While Vai may only be a few hundred years old I prefer theory that it comes from a more venerable language.

  35. The Truth must be told without any fear or favor!

  36. Brice Tevye says:

    Dwayne Jackson I don't get what's wrong with reading and celebrating the actual history… like from an encyclopedia or a book…
    a blog post is a better source to you
    Why isn't the story of 19th century Africans creating this innovative system in a tumultuous time with the amries of colonialism closing in around them a beauty and encouraging story. Is the creator of the script, Momolu Duwalu Bukele, a liar?
    And to think that A Cherokee man who immigrated and adopted their culture could have contriuted also, is that not an amazing story of Black & Brown streghth and innovation in a worlf where both were being fought, oppressed and enslaved??
    Do we have to inject myth and conspiracy into ALL of our history?
    There are reliable sources on these things…
    real people on the ground…

  37. Never trust anything Dr. Clyde Winters says or writes. If he says he looks out the window and says the sky's a beautiful blue, it's probably green with a tornado brewing in the distance.

  38. "However, evidence of its antiquity comes from inscriptions from Goundaka, Mali, that date to 3000 B.C." This is simply not true, if it is, I'd love to see the evidence.

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