Proto-Cuneiform: Earliest Form of Writing on Planet Earth

How Uruk Accounting Led to Mesopotamian Literary Texts

Mesopotamian Tablet with Uruk IV Proto-Cuneiform Writing, ca 3200 BC
Ann Ronan Pictures / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The earliest form of writing on our planet, called proto-cuneiform, was invented in Mesopotamia during the Late Uruk period, about 3200 BC. Proto-cuneiform consisted of pictographs — simple drawings of the subjects of the documents — and early symbols representing those ideas, drawn or pressed into puffy clay tablets, which were then fired in a hearth or baked in the sun.

Proto-cuneiform was not a written representation of the syntax of spoken language. Its original purpose was to maintain records of the vast amounts of production and trade of goods and labor during the first flowering of the urban Uruk period Mesopotamia. Word order didn't matter: "two flocks of sheep" could be "sheep flocks two" and still contain enough information to be understood. That accounting requirement, and the idea of proto-cuneiform itself, almost certainly evolved from the ancient use of clay tokens.

Transitional Written Language

The earliest characters of proto-cuneiform are impressions of clay token shapes: cones, spheres, tetrahedrons pushed into the soft clay. Scholars believe the impressions were meant to represent the same things as the clay tokens themselves: measures of grain, jars of oil, animal herds. In a sense, proto-cuneiform is simply a technological shortcut instead of carrying around clay tokens.

By the time of the appearance of full-fledged cuneiform, some 500 years after the introduction of proto-cuneiform, the written language had evolved to include the introduction of phonetic coding--symbols which represented sounds made by the speakers. Also, as a more sophisticated form of writing, cuneiform allowed the earliest examples of literature, such as the legend of Gilgamesh, and various bragging stories about rulers.

The Archaic Texts

The fact that we have tablets at all is accidental: these tablets were not meant to be saved beyond their use in Mesopotamian administration. Most of the tablets found by excavators were used as backfill along with adobe bricks and other rubbish, during rebuilding periods at Uruk and other cities.

To date there are approximately 6,000 preserved texts of proto-cuneiform (sometimes referred to as the "Archaic Texts" or "Archaic Tablets"), with a total of approximately 40,000 occurrences of 1,500 nonnumerical symbols and signs. Most of the signs occur very rarely, and only about 100 of the signs occur more than 100 times.

  • Proto-cuneiform writing was first identified on nearly 400 impressed clay tablets found in the sacred temple precinct of Eanna in the southern Mesopotamian city of Uruk. These were found during the early 20th century excavations by C. Leonard Woolley, and first published in 1935. All of them date to the very end of the Uruk period [3500 t0 3200 BC] and the Jemdet Nasr phase [3200 to 3000 BC].
  • The largest assemblage of proto-cuneiform tablets are also from Uruk, about 5,000 of them discovered between 1928 and 1976 during excavations by the German Archaeological Institute.
  • The Schøyen collection, a collection of manuscripts looted from an untold number of archaeological sites all over the world, includes numerous proto-cuneiform texts from sites such as Umma, Adab and Kish.
  • Proto-cuneiform texts comparable to Uruk III have been found at Jemdet Nasr, Uqair and Khafajah; illicit excavations since the 1990s have found several hundred additional texts.

Content of the Tablets

Most of the known proto-cuneiform tablets are simple accounts documenting the flow of commodities such as textiles, grain, or dairy products to individuals. These are believed to be summaries of allotments to administrators for later disbursement to others.

About 440 personal names appear in the texts, but interestingly, the named individuals are not kings or important people but rather enslaved and foreign captives. To be honest, the lists of individuals are not that different from those which summarize cattle, with detailed age and sex categories, except that they include personal names: the first evidence we have people having personal names.

There are about 60 symbols which represent numbers. These were circular shapes impressed with a round stylus, and the accountants used at least five different counting systems, depending on what was being counted. The most recognizable of these to us was the sexagesimal (base 60) system, which is used in our clocks today (1 minute = 60 seconds, 1 hour = 60 minutes, etc.) and the 360 degree radii of our circles. The Sumerian accountants used base 60 (sexagesimal) to quantify all animals, humans, animal products, dried fish, tools and pots, and a modified base 60 (bisexagesimal) to count grain products, cheeses, and fresh fish.

Lexical Lists

The only proto-cuneiform tablets that don't reflect administrative activities are the 10 percent or so which are called lexical lists. These lists are believed to be training exercises for scribes: they include lists of animals and official titles (not their names, their titles) and pottery vessel shapes among other things.

The best known of the lexical lists is called the Standard Professions List, a hierarchically organized inventory of Uruk officials and occupations. The "Standard Professions List" contains 140 entries beginning with an early form of the Akkadian word for king.

It was not until 2500 BC before the written records of Mesopotamia included letters, legal texts, proverbs, and literary texts.

Evolving Into Cuneiform

The evolution of proto-cuneiform to a subtler, broader type of language is evident in a discernable stylistic change from the earliest form about 100 years after its invention.

Uruk IV: The earliest proto-cuneiform comes from the earliest layers at the temple of Eanna in Uruk, dated to the Uruk IV period, about 3200 BC. These tablets have only a few graphs, and are quite simple in format. Most of them are pictographs, naturalistic designs drawn in curved lines with a pointed stylus. About 900 different graphs were drawn in vertical columns, representing a bookkeeping system of receipts and expenditures, involving the goods, quantities, individuals and institutions of the Uruk period economy.

Uruk III: Uruk III proto-cuneiform tablets appear about 3100 BC (Jemdet Nasr period), and that script consists of simpler, straighter lines, drawn with a stylus with a wedge shaped or triangular cross section nib. The stylus was pressed into the clay, rather than dragged across it, making the glyphs more uniform. Further, the signs are more abstract, slowly morphing into cuneiform, which was created by short wedge-like strokes. There are about 600 different graphs used in the Uruk III scripts (300 fewer than Uruk IV), and instead of appearing in vertical columns, the scripts ran in rows reading left to right.


The two most common languages in cuneiform were Akkadian and Sumerian, and it is thought that proto-cuneiform probably first expressed concepts in the Sumerian language (Southern Mesopotamian), and soon after that Akkadian (Northern Mesopotamian). Based on the distribution of the tablets into the broader Bronze Age Mediterranean world, proto-cuneiform and cuneiform itself were adapted to write Akkadian, Eblaite, Elamite, Hittite, Urartian, and Hurrian.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Algaze G. 2013. The end of prehistory and the Uruk period. In: Crawford H, editor. The Sumerian World. London: Routledge. p 68-94.
  • Chambon G. 2003. Meteorological Systems from Ur. Cuneiform Digital Library Journal 5.
  • Damerow P. 2006. The origins of writing as a problem of historical epistemology. Cuneiform Digital Library Journal 2006(1).
  • Damerow P. 2012. Sumerian beer: The origins of brewing technology in ancient Mesopotamia. Cuneiform Digital Library Journal 2012(2):1-20.
  • Woods C. 2010. The Earliest Mesopotamian Writing. In: Woods C, Emberling G, and Teeter E, editors. Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond. Chicago: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. p 28-98.
  • Woods C, Emberling G, and Teeter E. 2010. Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond. Chicago: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.
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Hirst, K. Kris. "Proto-Cuneiform: Earliest Form of Writing on Planet Earth." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 29). Proto-Cuneiform: Earliest Form of Writing on Planet Earth. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Proto-Cuneiform: Earliest Form of Writing on Planet Earth." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).