The Necessity of the Written Word

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I would love to know what Neanderthals thought about, but, unfortunately, they didn’t have written language. So, we will never know whether they planned for the future of their children, worried about changes in the weather, wished for warmer winters, fell in love, or even liked some songs better than others. We must rely on others to tell their stories.

Paleoanthropologists — Chris Stringer, Erik Trinkaus, Fred Smith, and Ian Tattersall, to name a few — work to reveal the Neanderthal story. They highlight artifacts, such as the bear cave flute, to argue for Neanderthals’ ability to create music. They analyze carved antelope bones and red ochre covered cave walls to suggest that they had an aesthetic eye. They look at healed wounds to reconstruct the dangers they faced, such as being trampled by giant bison, and their care for those who were injured. They examine burials to try to assess the Neanderthals’ concept of death and an afterlife. They examine skulls, including those of the toothless elderly, to surmise that elders, and other members of the community, may have been cherished.

Neanderthals are hardly the only ones without a written language. The bog body mummies of Northern Europe, which date from around 500 BC to around 1 AD, come from a people who had no written language. This is why researchers aiming to understand prehistoric Europe do so with tools that are less related to history than to science (medical devices such as CT-scans, and chemistry devices such as mass spectrometers). For example, Tollund Man (who was discovered in Denmark in 1950 with a noose around his neck) was just recently surmised to have eaten a rather frugal meal of grains with threshing waste that was, for obvious reasons, usually not eaten. The researchers have suggested that this diet, coupled with his pleasant facial expression, supports the idea that Tollund Man was a willing human sacrifice rather than a criminal who was executed. Others have suggested that the bog bodies belonged to criminals and suggest that their nakedness and evidence of perimortem trauma (injury occurring at the time of death) point to execution. Either hypothesis may be right or wrong. New evidence can lead to other reconstructions of these past events, but we won’t know what Tollund Man or any other bog body was thinking before death or what thoughts arose in those who engaged in the bog body killings — because we have no written records. As early as 1573 Franz Schmidt wrote about his job as an executioner in medieval Germany that highlights the horrors and injustices that occurred during that period; just imagine what the bog body executioners could have revealed, had they possessed the gift of writing.

We will never know whether Neanderthals planned for the future of their children, worried about changes in the weather, wished for warmer winters, fell in love, or even liked some songs better than others.


For bioarchaeologists, such as I, working on Native American remains presents similar reconstruction problems. We cannot know the minds of the prehistoric people we study. Prehistoric Native Americans — like all prehistoric populations everywhere — left no written records. The best we can do is tell their stories by analyzing their artifacts and human remains. For instance, burials with varying amounts of grave goods tell us that their societies were not egalitarian; at the source of the prehistoric skeletal collection that I curate at San José State University, the Ryan Mound, some burials had literally thousands of carved beads associated with them, whereas others had just a few. At the Cahokia site (a location near modern St. Louis, Missouri, that is dated from about 1000 to 600 years ago), evidence of hierarchy is also present: some skeletons appear to be from severely malnourished individuals, with no grave goods, whereas others, perhaps belonging to leaders, are graced with more than 20,000 shell beads. Cranial trauma, projectile wounds, and trophy taking reveal that many prehistoric populations in California were engaged in intertribal warfare, perhaps for thousands of years, although an absence of trauma on children’s bones suggest that they were protected from these violent encounters. We cannot know whether those at the bottom of the social scale were envious of the leaders or saw them as godlike.

Historic documents, such as those written by ancient Egyptians, allow us to understand the differences between the concept of a pharaoh and the concept of a nobleman. But they’re nothing like War and Peace or the love letters that have been published from the Civil War or World War I. We cannot know whether a young man going into war would have been missed by a romantic love interest who waited patiently for his return. Without a written record, we cannot know whether a prehistoric Native American leader may have stepped up and given a speech equivalent to the Gettysburg Address.

Native Americans did encounter Westerners around 1492 AD, although some tribes were not contacted by Europeans until much later. The Europeans who met the Native Americans started to write about those they encountered. Some of the tales were horrific — tales of child sacrifices in the Peruvian Andes and the Casquin Indians’ slaughter, destruction of houses, and vandalism of the burials of their Capaha enemies, as told by Garcilaso de la Vega during the Hernando de Soto expeditions of 1538 to 1543. Other written accounts developed the romantic concept of the noble savage. In 1854 Arthur Barlowe described the Native Americans he encountered in North Carolina as: “gentle, loving, and faithful, void of all guile, and treason.” That is one of thousands of examples. Many of these written accounts were biased by the desire to please a church, a government, or a public. But a written record allows us to see what was said to have occurred, to compare records, and to make corrections where needed, as Christopher Flannery does in his review of the various Wounded Knee books that have been published over a long period of time.

Historic documents are nothing like War and Peace or the love letters that have been published from the Civil War or World War I.


Currently, there is a movement to erase these written narratives of indigenous people. The premise is that people can tell only their own stories. Santa Fe journalist Mary Mathis said, “There’s so much that was written, but when it was written, it was from the point of view of Eastern colonizers.” Imagine the outcry if English people said that only they could write their own histories. We’d rightly regard this as racist. Taylor Hensel, the story editor working with Mathis, adds that “the only way to tell authentic stories” about Native Americans is for them to “have complete ownership of the process.” They ignore the fact that Native Americans labored under the handicap of lacking a written language, until they learned one from the “colonizers.”

The radical activist movement pushes to legitimize oral traditions. CalNAGPRA (California’s Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) is a law that aims to rebury Native American remains that have been unearthed. CalNAGPRA has placed oral traditions on higher ground than all other forms of evidence (including historic documents and DNA analysis) for determining relatedness between the past peoples and present tribes. Considering that some remains date back thousands of years and oral histories are not at all reliable after 500 years (if that!), this is even more absurd than asking a modern Dane to retell the history of the bog bodies from stories his grandfather told.

Yet even scientists are falling into the trap of using oral history as data. In the New York Times, Keolu Fox, a Native Hawaiian geneticist, stated at an indigenous workshop which introduces students to data science skills that “If you can’t view oral history as data, as something that can be parsed and archived to predict things, then you’re missing out on a whole data set.” But cherished secrecies hinder our ability to assess oral histories and traditions. Apache activists tried to keep telescopes from being constructed on Mount Graham in Arizona, on the ground that the mountain is sacred; but they refused to provide evidence, claiming that it had to be kept secret. Perhaps the main purpose of writing is sharing knowledge.

Unfortunately, as I and my coauthor James W. Springer note in Repatriation and Erasing the Past, oral histories are full of things we know not to be true, such as creation myths (e.g., the Zunis’ story of people emerging from underwater), mystical creatures (e.g., the Blackfoot’s underwater panthers and thunderbirds, which provided horses to the tribe), and anachronisms (e.g., steamboats prior to European contact). I do not doubt that most cultures relied heavily on superstition and myths to understand the world, but Western culture no longer accepts explanatory fantasies from our own past — so, why should anyone accept them as real from other cultures?

Imagine the outcry if English people said that only they could write their own histories. We’d rightly regard this as racist.


But this is happening. The discovery of burials at residential schools in Canada is a prime example of erasing the historic record, in circumstances in which written words have been incomplete. In the New York Times, Kisha Supernant has said that “the oral histories of former residential school students are sufficient proof that many of the missing children — of which there are 10,000 to 15,000 total, by current estimates — were buried in unmarked graves on school grounds.” However, as noted in the Truth and Reconciliation Report, archival records from the Indian Residential Schools, although far from perfect, reveal that the graves were marked by wooden crosses. Nearly all burials (both of Native Canadians and white Canadians) in middle class cemeteries in the late 1800s and early 1900s consisted of painted wooden crosses that deteriorate over time; the graves were not unmarked, but the markings have disintegrated. But this doesn’t fit the narrative of victimization that’s being promoted for political reasons — and financial ones too, perhaps, if compensation or reparations become a possibility.

It is amazing that as late as 200 years ago, many cultures, including Native American, had no form of writing. The Hopi language was not written down until 1860, when Mormons attempted a dictionary that included 486 words. Later, in the 1970s, academics such as Benjamin Whorf and Ekkehart Malotki worked on more comprehensive dictionaries, such as their nearly 30,000 entries in the Hopi Dictionary of the Third Mesa Dialect. Finnish had no written language until 1450. Yet Egypt had a written language as early as 3000 BC. Throughout ancient Egyptian history, literacy was a key factor in social class. When hieroglyphics were replaced by the Greek alphabet nearly 2,500 years later, literacy spread, as did the ability for those in the lower classes to move up the social ladder.

I, for one, am grateful that written language exists. Written language has produced some of our most important achievements. It has allowed individual voices to be heard and remembered, so that the stories they have told may last forever. When falsehoods are committed to writing, they are much easier to assess and correct; when truths are discovered, they are there for all to see. And when bridges of empathy and understanding are built across barriers of culture and history, it is written words, not the gods, that build them.


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