The Cuneiform Writing System in Ancient Mesopotamia: Emergence and Evolution

The earliest writing systems evolved independently and at roughly the same time in Egypt and Mesopotamia, but current scholarship suggests that Mesopotamia’s writing appeared first. That writing system, invented by the Sumerians, emerged in Mesopotamia around 3500 BCE. At first, this writing was representational: a bull might be represented by a picture of a bull, and a pictograph of barley signified the word barley. Though writing began as pictures, this system was inconvenient for conveying anything other than simple nouns, and it became increasingly abstract as it evolved to encompass more abstract concepts, eventually taking form in the world’s earliest writing: cuneiform. An increasingly complex civilization encouraged the development of an increasingly sophisticated form of writing. Cuneiform came to function both phonetically (representing a sound) and semantically (representing a meaning such as an object or concept) rather than only representing objects directly as a picture.

This lesson plan, intended for use in the teaching of world history in the middle grades, is designed to help students appreciate the parallel development and increasing complexity of writing and civilization in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys in ancient Mesopotamia. You may wish to use this lesson independently as an introduction to Mesopotamian civilization, or as an entry point into the study of Sumerian and Babylonian history and culture.

Guiding Questions

How did cuneiform writing emerge and evolve in ancient Mesopotamia?

How did the cuneiform writing system affect Mesopotamian civilization?

Learning Objectives

Point to specific artifacts to demonstrate the way the writing system in Mesopotamia was transformed.

Analyze the purposes writing served in Mesopotamia with an emphasis on how those purposes evolved as the civilization changed.

Gain a basic understanding of the ways in which the development of systems of writing and the development of civilization are linked.