Challenging Historical Assumptions: Did the Ancient Egyptians Invent Hieroglyphics?

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It is often assumed that the ancient Egyptians were the first civilization to use hieroglyphics. But what if that were not the case?

When you think of hieroglyphics, you probably immediately think of the Ancient Egyptians. But it’s not that simple. This writing form has a rich, sometimes controversial history, that challenges its idea of solely belonging to the Egyptians. For instance, look at the word “hieroglyphics” – it isn’t Egyptian in origin but Greek, with “hiero” meaning “holy” and “glyphics” meaning “writings.” This makes sense, as ancient Egyptians considered the hieroglyphics to have been a gift from their god. With hieroglyphics being regarded as one of the earliest forms of writing, it’s important to consider the alternative history behind them. This is of even greater importance if you think of how our writing system has originated from the days of hieroglyphics, as well as how they are still a hot topic of debate today.

Writing systems are inherently tied to verbal language, which means when new insights into Egyptian writings are found, they have the power to change our understanding of language and its origins. And we know how important language is to help us understand, and interact with, the world around us. By taking a look at some interesting theories and myths surrounding hieroglyphics, we might even gain greater clarity about the world that came long before us and shaped how we communicate today.

Who Invented Hieroglyphics? 

The first question is: did the Egyptians invent hieroglyphics? Although this is a popular belief, it’s not set in stone. It’s possible that the Egyptians didn’t create hieroglyphics out of anything, but adapted them from an idea they got from the Ancient Sumerians, who are regarded as being the first urban civilization of the world. They were  Mesopotamians who created cuneiform, the world’s oldest writing system that still survives today.

Cuneiform, Mesopotamia

An example of ancient cuneiform writing: a close-up view the stela of Iddi-Sin, king of Simurrum. Old-Babylonian period 2003-1595 BCE. The Sulaymaniyah Museum, Iraq.

Cuneiform is thought to have been invented before Egyptian hieroglyphics because Mesopotamian writing experiments led to the discovery of numbers and signs. The language slowly developed, and people learned how to communicate with symbols. This differs from hieroglyphics that seem to have erupted out of thin air. So, it makes sense that writing systems were a relay race, with one influencing the other. Further evidence for cuneiform influencing hieroglyphics is that cuneiform didn’t disappear quickly – it was used until the first century AD. This fact further grounds it as a popular and influential writing system of the time.

Could Hunting Communities Have Inspired Hieroglyphics? 

Egyptian hieroglyphics could have originated from rock diagrams that were created by prehistoric hunting communities who lived in the desert close to the Nile, according to the Ancient History Encyclopedia. Since these communities would have communicated with each other through pictures, this could have influenced the ancient Egyptians to come up with their hieroglyphics. Some of the hunting community’s rock pictures are also found on pottery vessels created by early pre-dynastic Egyptian cultures, which shows that hieroglyphics could’ve arisen from a melting pot of cultures and communities. This also reveals how closely tied various cultures and communities are. Our language and writing systems are an amalgamation of various cultures and civilisations from the past.

 Were Hieroglyphics The Main Writing System Of The Time? Probably Not 

We tend to assume that hieroglyphics were the most prominent written language of the Ancient Egyptian era. However, research points to how there were three main languages that were translated on the Rosetta Stone: ancient Demotic Egyptian, ancient Greek, and of course the hieroglyphics. It’s impossible to know which one out of these three was the main one that inspired the others. A book entitled “Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone And Decipherment” states that all three systems were vital – many Egyptians could speak Egyptian and Greek.
All three were commonly used during the Egyptian era, which proves that the hieroglyphics might not have been the most prominent. Thus, there were other influential writing and language systems filtering down through our evolution.

Could Illiterate Miners Have Created The First Alphabet Based On Hieroglyphics?

Orly Goldwasser, an Egyptologist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, has come up with a fascinating theory about the world’s first alphabet. She travelled to Serabit el-Khadem in Egypt, where engravings of the very first alphabet were found back in the early 1900s. There she discovered disordered and messy writing in the engravings, which would have been forbidden in Egypt and probably not produced by Egyptians of that time. These inscriptions were located within proximity to turquoise mines and a temple decorated with hieroglyphics. There, she also found the name of a Canaanite goddess. Taking all these findings into account, Goldwasser believes that Canaanite miners who couldn’t read or write were responsible for the invention of the very first alphabet. The assumption is that they would have seen the picture symbols of hieroglyphics and been interested in them, before adopting them for their own communication needs. This is how they would have invented their language – basing it on pictures and symbols in hieroglyphics that they didn’t understand.

Serabit el Khadim, Ancient Egypt, Hieroglyphics

Serabit el-Khadim, the site of the earliest known use of hieroglyphics by the ancient Egyptians.

Some scholars don’t agree with Goldwasser’s claims, but they do agree on this fact: all of our current alphabets arise from that first language. As Goldwasser has explained, the capital letter “A” was an upside-down ox-head resting on its horns, with “ox” in Canaanite becoming the letter “A” in Latin. Her research is intriguing because it highlights illiterate miners who were likely disregarded in history, but could have played an essential role in the creation of language.

 Was One Of The Oldest Languages Actually Hebrew?

There’s a lot of talk about how Greek and Egyptian were the languages of the Egyptian era, but a controversial study shows another side to the story. The study claims that there’s evidence of a primary system of Hebrew appearing on stone blocks at various sites in Egypt.

In an article published on ScienceNews.org, Canadian archaeologist and epigrapher Douglas Petrovich claims that Israelites who were residing in Egypt over 3,800 years ago took the hieroglyphics and transformed them into Hebrew. The reason for this is that people who spoke Hebrew wanted to communicate with Egyptian Jews so they took the complicated hieroglyphics and simplified them into the alphabet they could use. We might not consider Hebrew as being part of the Egyptian era, and yet there’s further proof of this. Egyptologist Galit Dayan has analysed pharaoh scrolls and found a link between the hieroglyphics, the Haggadah (Jewish text), and Bible, which all reference the story of the Exodus. According to an article published in the Jewish Journal, Dayan claims that Jewish people helped Egypt become a great empire, citing how there were many Egyptian expressions that found their way into the Haggadah. This shows proof that Jewish people were present in the Egyptian era.

The Discovery Of An Ancient Hieroglyphics “Billboard” Could Change Our Understanding Of Hieroglyphics  

Hieroglyphics are often said to have been complicated and therefore only used in monuments and only by those in the upper layers of society. Research from Yale University archaeologists and the Royal Museums of Art and History in Belgium have made an intriguing discovery that contradicts this belief.

Egyptian hieroglyphics might have been used by the common man earlier than thought, thanks to the discovery of an ancient Egyptian “billboard.” The researchers liken the engravings they found to a billboard because the writings that look like hieroglyphics were located on a hill in the Elkab desert on a large rock face. This region was considered to be a busy area back in ancient Egypt. The fact that the writing appears on a rock face in an area that was highly populated – and in massive hieroglyphs that were larger than 50 cm – suggests that the general public could have likely understood, and had access to, the language. The inscriptions date back to roughly 3,200 BC.

If the common man used hieroglyphics as well as those of the upper class, this changes the way we view the society of the time. For instance, it is believed that during the Egyptian era, one had to become a “scribe”, a person educated in writing, to understand hieroglyphics. To become a scribe, one had to attend a special school and get an education, which required several years of study. However, if there is evidence of hieroglyphics being easily accessible to the common man, then this raises some interesting questions about education, basic language, and the social classes of the period. There is still much to discover about ancient Egypt. Uncovering more information about the hieroglyphics is just the tip of the iceberg.

The hieroglyphics originated in ancient Egypt, but they are still an interesting and intriguing writing system for us today. Researchers continue to strive to learn more about them. Even though they date back to around 3200 BC, they are still highly valuable to us, 5200 years later. By understanding their origins and how they linked to language and cultures of the time, we can gain a better understanding of history and see how so many different peoples were more closely connected than we thought.

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About Author

Currently a freelance writer, editor and content manager, a history teacher in a past life with a love for early to medieval history that I am still indulging.

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