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?