‘First recorded name in history belongs to an accountant’

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The first recorded name in history belongs to an accountant, says Dr. Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

Harari refers to a period when complex societies began to appear in the wake of the Agricultural Revolution of about 11 000 years ago “when completely new type of information became vital – numbers.”

He writes that up until then, foragers were never obliged to handle large amounts of mathematical data and thus human brains did not adapt to storing and processing numbers.

“Yet in order to maintain a large kingdom, mathematical data was vital. It was never enough to legislate laws and tell stories about guardian gods. One also had to collect taxes. In order to tax hundreds of thousands of people, it was imperative to collect data about people’s incomes and possessions; data about payments made; data about arrears, debts and fines; data about discounts and exemptions. This added up to millions of data bits, which had to be stored and processed. Without this capacity, the state would never know what resources it had and what further resources it could tap.

“When the amount of people and property in a particular society crossed a critical threshold, it became necessary to store and process large amounts of mathematical data. Since the human brain could not do it, the system collapsed. For thousands of years after the Agricultural Revolution, human social networks remained relatively small and simple.

“The first to overcome the problem were the ancient Sumerians, who lived in southern Mesopotamia.

“As the number of inhabitants grew, so did the amount of information required to coordinate their affairs. Between the years 3500 BC and 3000 BC, some unknown Sumerian geniuses invented a system for storing and processing information outside their brains, one that was custom-built to handle large amounts of mathematical data. The Sumerians thereby released their social order from the limitations of the human brain, opening the way for the appearance of cities, kingdoms and empires. The data-processing system invented by the Sumerians is called ‘writing’.

According to Harari the Sumerian writing system combined two types of signs, which were pressed in clay tablets. “One type of signs represented numbers. There were signs for 1, 10, 60, 600, 3,600 and 36,000. (The Sumerians used a combination of base-6 and base-10 numeral systems. Their base-6 system bestowed on us several important legacies, such as the division of the day
into twenty-four hours and of the circle into 360 degrees.) The other type of signs represented people, animals, merchandise, territories, dates and so forth.”

He says because writing on clay tablets was time-consuming, it was mostly used for essential record-keeping.

“If we look for the first words of wisdom reaching us from our ancestors, 5,000 years ago, we’re in for a big disappointment. The earliest messages our ancestors have left us read, for example, ‘29,086 measures barley 37 months Kushim’. The most probable reading of this sentence is: ‘A total of 29,086 measures of barley were received over the course of 37 months. Signed, Kushim.’ ”

According to Harari, ‘Kushim’ may be the generic title of an officeholder, or the name of a particular individual.

“If Kushim was indeed a person, he may be the first individual in history whose name is known to us! All the names applied earlier in human history – the Neanderthals, the Natufians, Chauvet Cave, Göbekli Tepe – are modern inventions. We have no idea what the builders of Göbekli Tepe actually called the place. With the appearance of writing, we are beginning to hear history through the ears of its protagonists. When Kushim’s neighbours called out to him, they might really have shouted, ‘Kushim!’

“It is telling that the first recorded name in history belongs to an accountant, rather than a prophet, a poet or a great conqueror.”