Saturday, January 23, 2016

What did men first write about? Religion? Poetry? Or Finance?

If you answered Finance to the question then it was a smart choice! After my last post on the Financial Crisis of the Roman Empire in 33 AD many people asked me about when did such things as banks and financial companies start. Actually perhaps the weirdest thing is that Financial Services have been with us since the beginning of History or perhaps even since our earliest Proto-History. Historians often define the beginning of history with the invention of writing, since it allowed to register events and lives in a more accurate way. Objects such as weapons or tools exist for pre-historical times, but they only provide clues to how those men lived their lives and not about who they were, how they spoke, how they thought.

We tend to think the most ancient writings are religious works like the Bible (which started being written in the 7th century B.C.) or epic poems such as the Iliad and the Odyssey (which date from the 8th century B.C.). Some Hindu traditions claim their ancient writings like the Bhagavad Gita are more than 5000 years old, but modern historians think that the most ancient elements of the Gita come from the 8th or 9th centuries B.C. and that its final form was only completed from the 5th to 2nd centuries B.C. The Bible, the Iliad/Odyssey and the Bhagavad Gita do represent very old works which are still popular and widely read today. However, the most ancient writings are much less glamorous than stories of gods and heroes.

Writing appeared for the first time around 3100 BC in Ancient Sumeria or Mesopotamia, a region that is a part of modern Irak. As portrayed in the book by famous archaeologist Samuel Noah Kramer “History begins at Sumer”, the most ancient pieces of writing we have are about accounting and financial transactions, things such as how much was produced of each agricultural product, how much was stored and how much was traded. Ancient writers were basically doing basic accounting and registering loans such as “person A owes so much agricultural products to person B and this must be paid before date C”. The Sumerian stone tablet above from the Walters Art Museum registers a transfer of land and is one of the oldest examples of a phonetic writing system. Over time these writers added more signs to represent cities and gods in order to give a more sacred feeling to their financial contracts. In fact the first times religion is mentioned in writing it appears as sort of a financial penalty "the person who breaks the contract or does not pay will be cursed by god and demon so-so".

Perhaps some 400 or 500 years before writing appeared there was some form of proto-writing or pictograph drawings in Ancient Sumeria. And these pictograms were also about Accounting and Finance! Imagine the toy blocks that our children use before they know how to read. Some of these blocks may have the shapes of houses or of animals such as birds and cows, but children place them in a way that tells a story. In some sense the ancient business men had such a system before writing appeared! These men used small clay objects or tokens for counting agricultural and manufactured goods. But after a few centuries these ancient business men realized they could simply draw these images and clay objects were unnecessary, so pictographs replaced the clay tokens! Also, these business men found out it wasn’t necessary to draw an object or an animal such as a pig five times, since you could just draw one pig and then add five lines to mark it was the same object repeated as a certain numbers. And that was how math and arithmetic began. Writing appeared around 3100-3000 BC and it differs from pictographic proto-writing because it represents phonetic sounds and words instead of being a mere list of objects.

It is hard to know when Religion and Poetry started. Perhaps the oldest example of both comes from Sumerian mythology and the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is believed to have been written around 2000 BC. Above I show the image of a Babylonian table from 1800 BC with part of this epic, which is considered the oldest work of literature. It is the story of an abusive king Gilgamesh who overtaxes its people and molests the young women. Gilgamesh then finds a friend sent by the gods, Enkidu, and they live several adventures together. After Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh departs on a quest for Eternal Life. It is a fascinating story just like the Odyssey or the Genesis, therefore I will not spoil its reading with more details.

Well, I am an Economist and one who is interested in both financial topics and poetry. In fact many of the greatest poets and writers were merchants like Marco Polo or economists/accountants like Fernando Pessoa and Cavafy. Now how do I imagine that Religion and Poetry were born? I suppose one day an ancient Mesopotamian business man was tired of writing about properties, loans and finance. All these are valuable things, but ones that can be replaced. Then perhaps he thought about writing about things that cannot be counted and that are irreplaceable: the Sun, the Moon, the Constellations of Gods and Heroes. This bored business man then wrote of feelings such as love and friendship, which cannot be enforced by financial contracts. And that is how I imagine Religion and Poetry were born!

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