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phily.gifCopyright Philadelphia Tribune Jan 1, 1999

Ancient tablets bolster idea Egypt was first civilization


By Chad G. Glover
Tribune Staff

It is an argument that has waged for years. What people can lay claim to the birth of civilization?

The debate, emblazoned with racial overtones, has at times grown angry and at other times has leaned towards the ridiculous. It might now be over.

Clay tablets uncovered in southern Egypt from the tomb of a king known as Scorpion, may represent the earliest known writing by humankind, an archaeologist said.

If confirmed, the discovery would rank among the greatest ever in the search for the origins of the written word.

According to Gunter Dreyer, head of the German Archaeological Institute, the tablets record linen and oil deliveries made about 5,300 years ago as a tithe to King Scorpion I.

Carbon dating places the tablets between 3300 BC and 3200 BC

The idea that language originated in Egypt rather than Mesopotamia is not a new one, according to Dr. Molefi Asante, a professor of Egyptology at Temple University,

Asante cited the works of Cheikh Anta Diop, a Senegalese professor, wrote a book in the '60s that claimed that the Egyptian language is older than Sumer, was an ancient country in area now known as Iraq.

Similar works written in the '60s described Sumer as a colony of Egypt.

"African and African American scholars made this argument many years ago," Asante said. "It has only received press attention because it was a German scholar who is now saying it."

Until now, however, the notion of Egypt as the cradle of language has been relegated to the fringes of academic thought.

Historians instead credited the Sumerians of the Mesopotamian civilization with the creation of written language, sometime before 3000 BC, though the exact date remains in doubt.

The Egyptian writings -- in the form of line drawings of animals, plants and mountains -- are the first evidence that hieroglyphics used by later-day Pharaonic dynasties did not "rise as Phoenix from the ashes" but developed gradually, Dreyer said.

"Linguists now have a larger history (of writing) to regard," he said.

One American archaeologist called the tablets an "exciting" find.

"This would be one of the greatest discoveries in the history of writing and ancient Egyptian culture," said Kent Weeks, professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo.

But John Baines, a professor of Egyptology at Oxford University was more cautious.

"Undoubtedly (Dreyer's) findings are very important, but I have an open mind on this and would like to see more evidence on the comparative ages of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian samples", Baines said in a telephone interview.

At this point, "I would say it is likely that writing was invented in both places," he said.

It is an idea questioned openly by Asante.

"There is nothing in Sumerian or Mesopetamian literature that is comparable to the Egyptian literature from the same time," said Asante, "If you look at the oldest documents of literature in the world, you find them in Egypt. If you establish that there was writing occurring simultaneously in Mesopotamia and Sumer, it was still just a simple listing of prices, and not an intellectual treatise, dealing with god and philosophy, as in Africa."