Mesopotamia May Not Be The Cradle Of Civilization

“I believe, like you, that civilization is a natural and inevitable consequence, whether good or evil I am not prepared to state.” —Robert E. Howard, in a letter to H.P. Lovecraft

In A Nutshell

For many years, we believed that Mesopotamia was the “cradle of civilization” because the oldest evidence of a written language was found there. However, archaeologists have discovered the Dispilio tablet in Greece which dates to 5260 BC. More recently, they’ve also found tablets in the Danube Valley that appear to contain a written language. Those tablets date to 5500 BC. A debate rages among archaeologists as to whether these Danube Valley symbols are decorations or a written language. If found to be the world’s oldest written language, it would mean that, as far as we know, civilization began in the Danube Valley, not Mesopotamia.

The Whole Bushel

For many years, we thought we knew enough about the Danube Valley civilization to still believe that written communication began in Mesopotamia. It appeared that the earliest forms of written communication evolved at the same time, but independently, in both Mesopotamia and Egypt around 3500 BC. The Sumerians created the writing system in Mesopotamia, although it was just simple pictures to represent things like animals at first. Eventually, it transformed into cuneiform, which could express abstract concepts as well as simple nouns.

In 2004, archaeologist George Hourmouziadis announced that he had found an even earlier example of written language in a tablet near the village of Dispilio, Greece. The Dispilio tablet was a wooden tablet dated to 5260 BC that was partially damaged when it was removed from its environment and exposed to higher levels of oxygen. The writing on the tablet goes beyond mere pictographs to a form that suggests more advanced thinking among its creators. Scientists believe that the Dispilio tablet and other discoveries yet to be made may explain why the Greeks had 800,000 word entries in their language when the next closest language had only 250,000. There appear to be some missing language links.

That brings us back to the Danube Valley civilization. We do know that the people of the Lower Danube Valley and the Balkan foothills were advanced for their time in technology, art, and distant trade. All this occurred before the greatness of Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome even existed. While the rest of Europe was stuck in the Stone Age, the people of the Danube Valley knew how to smelt copper, design beautiful pottery and figurines, construct furniture and two-story houses, and put ornate headdresses and jewelry in their graves. They also invented the wheel.

The one missing element to call this a civilization was a form of written language. Now we may have it.

Although not all archaeologists agree, some believe that tablets found in the Danube Valley contain the oldest written language ever discovered, possibly even older than the Dispilio tablet. The Danube Valley tablets have been dated to 5500 BC. According to German linguist Harald Haarmann, they contain Vinca symbols that represent a form of language we simply haven’t deciphered yet. These symbols have been observed throughout several archaeological sites in the area.

If this is a true written language, the Danube Valley people would become the oldest civilization known to man. However, many Mesopotamian scholars insist that these symbols are simply decorations because they’ve been found on pottery and other artifacts.

It’s not as easy to explain away the 700 different characters in the Danube Valley script, which is approximately the same number of characters in Egyptian hieroglyphs. That spurred some scholars to suggest that the Danube people copied their characters from Mesopotamian civilizations. However, that doesn’t make sense because the Danube tablets are far older than the ones found in Mesopotamia. Haarmann believes many scholars just can’t handle a change that conflicts with their long-accepted beliefs about the origin of civilization.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: Marie Lan-Nguyen
Edsitement: The Cuneiform Writing System in Ancient Mesopotamia: Emergence and Evolution
Archaeology News Network: Prehistoric tablet calls into question history of writing
NY Times: A Lost European Culture, Pulled From Obscurity
Ancient Origins: Is the Danube Valley Civilization script the oldest writing in the world?

  • OldBoris

    It’s certainly an interesting thing to read about. For what it’s worth, several finds from recent decades have shaken the idea that the Mediterranean was the source of all civilizations up to the Iron Age.

    There is the Nebra Sky Disk from Germany. I really can’t stop talking about it, because it is both beautiful and historically significant. It was found in 1999 in Germany, in a prehistoric enclosure that seems to have had some significance of its own (because from it, the sun would set right behind the highest mountain in the area at a certain time of the year) and dates back to the Bronze Age. It is an indication not only of the quality of the work of the people living in Northern Europe at the time, but also of their understanding of the course of the moon and the sun throughout the year. For bonus points, it’s also the world’s first known partially-accurate depiction of the cosmos.

  • Hillyard

    These people could smelt copper, build two storey houses, design and build intricate jewelry and invented the wheel, but it is too much to think that they had a written language?

    • ThirdSection

      It’s not impossible for a culture with technical skills to not ave a written language. Perhaps they didn’t feel they needed one.

      What I say here is not too far-fetched. It helps to remember that the Mesoamerican and Andean civilizations built sophisticated states, had written languages, developed mathematics and astronomy, and yet never developed the wheel beyond its use in children’s toys.

  • stefano paperini

    Im bored by the supponence of the science: every new discovering can change the knowledge of the past. They should admit that we don’t know enough and stop making theories about it! At least until we can have enough proof . I believe the past of the humanity may be a bit more complex than what we learnt at school…

    • xmarkwe

      Yeah. I see your point Stefano. Draw a line under it, say “That’s it, no more changes, the story is already told”.

      That will be a great timesaver for students of history.

      As far as understanding mankind, how discoveries were made, and where we came from, not so great.

      And, it is a helluva boring approach for those who find the whole thing fascinating.

  • After few months or years, we might know about a new discovery which tells us about a new “cradle of civilization”.

  • Hugo Ortega

    Where to begin with this. Every month I always end up reading about some new discovery that is supposed to “rewrite” ancient history. But more often than not what you end up reading is merely a historical or cultural outlier that had little to no impact on the greater human story.

    Another aspect of these “discoveries” is that it always end up with people talking about how the ancients were more advanced and that the accuracy of our historical knowledge is so far off base that we should ignore it all in favor of some “new” paradigm. Meanwhile no one takes into account how knowledge and culture always spread favorably by successful people and die off by people who could not incorporate or spread their culture to a wider population. What is the significance of a discovery or piece of technology if literally no one else in the region is even aware of it’s existence?

    So some group in the Danube may or may not have developed some form of writing thousands of years before the Babylonians. Unless it can be proven that all writing or at least the language of any major civilization in the Mediterranean can be traced to this then the impact of this discovery is irrelevant. If this group of people never spread their language outside of the Danube Valley, then what is the historic significance of this?

    This discovery is a weird sideshow in human history that never went anywhere. And probably there were hundreds of such events that occur in the past. Technology that was never embraced. Cultural developments that never spread outside a isolated group. This doesn’t rewrite history because if that technology was never adopted it was a dead end development. If a cultural or social development never makes out of a insulated, isolated group it has no impact on history. The fact of the matter is this “writing” wasn’t something people were expecting, there doesn’t seem to be any cultural link between this writing and the greater ancient world. So it’s more than likely that whatever language this was, it was never adopted and more than likely died out when a superior culture took over and replaced this language with a more common popular one.

    Nothing to see here move along……

    • Steaua Bucuresti

      Just a quick question to you? What makes you think that the danubian civilisation had less impact than the Mesopotamian one?

      • Hugo Ortega

        Listen I’m not against researching any new development. But I read too many times of these types of stories then a few years laters it’s never followed up to find as try as they might they can’t see any spreading of this find to other sights and regions and it appears that whatever happened there was unique to that time and place and never resulted in a cultural force.

        Stonehenge is probably the easiest of these to understand as it stands closer in time to be more researchable but the sight is still largely a mystery, specifically as to its direct purpose outside of some religious and cultural center. But one thing is clear, shortly after Stonehenge was built early metal age Europeans enter the British isles and within a few generations obliterated the Stonehenge culture to the point that the entire purpose of the site is lost to time and history.

        There are probably numerous such examples all throughout the human story. There is the mysterious stone steps in Japan. Which seemed to be an deliberate attempt to create an artificial structure that pre dates anything we know at this point as “construction”. Now there’s debate as to whether the site was naturally formed and appears to be manmade but even allowing for the idea that the site was either carved by people completely or just altered an already existing shape the fact of the matter no other evidence exists that whoever made that structure manage to spread that discovery outside of that site. So at best there may have been a group of humans who managed to create a shining moment of greatness but the conditions weren’t right for that greatness to spread out to the greater world.

        For example we can tell the migratory patterns of early homonids by using left over fire pits, as we can trace a clear surge of migration and colonization directly associated with the use of fire in early hominid species.

        That is a large reason for example we are practically genetically identical because it was a small group of humans with superior tool making and communication skills that left Africa and conquered the entire planet.

        We don’t have much direct evidence we don’t have a clear idea who exactly figured out fire was a excellent tool and how it seems only a small group of humans managed to survive an ecological disaster and begging the march to our modern world.

        It’s simple minded to think human civilization was a smooth transition from one era to another, that developement is always linear. Truth is there are probably numerous failed starts and tragic bad luck that preventing one group or another from being the culture that started civilization as we know it. There were probably numerous lost knowledges and genius that we will never even know about because outside of a very small region no one ever even heard of them.

        Central and South America is littered with ancient cultures which seemed to flourish for a brief instant and then vanish with barely a trace as to their culture. The Toltec and a lot of pre inca cultures are a mystery not just because they left very little in the way of archeological evidence but their cultural influence appeared to have been so minimal as to have no bearing on later cultural developement. The Inca especially subverted numerous peoples in an attemp to create cultural and political order and stability. The final historical irony being that they themselves fell victim to the very tactic that they used effectively to maintain power. Which is why the Inca Culture, while great in its accomplishments, never managed to influence anything outside of its region in the scale of say, the Hellenic culture. Even though the spark and drive of civilization was there.

    • xmarkwe


      That is one of the weirdest little dissertations I have read for a while.
      Some may find this fascinating, as I do. Every new discovery which takes civilization back a little further than we previously knew is, in the very least, interesting.

      Do you wish to simply stop such research, put a line under history, and say “That’s it. We are sticking to this story and not changing it. All further discoveries are to be ignored and never spoken of from hereon”.

      Can’t see any logic in that thought process myself. Unless someone explores these matters, and records facts and theories, nothing will ever be proven.

      And, you probably hugely underestimate how much people may have travelled, and how much information was exchanged in those not so ancient times.

    • ThirdSection

      I find the culture that may have brought the wheel to Europe to be hardly insignificant.

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