by A Moore
The importance of oral culture and tradition in Africa and the recent dominance of European languages through colonialism, among other factors, has led to the misconception that the languages of Africa either have no written form or have been put to writing only very recently.
However, Africa has the world’s oldest and largest collection of ancient writing systems. The evidence dates to prehistoric times and can be found in multiple regions of the continent.
By contrast, continental Europe’s oldest writing, Greek, was not fully in use until c. 1400 B.C. (a clay tablet found in Iklaina, Greece) and is largely derived from an older African script.
The oldest Asian writing, proto-cuneiform, dates to around 3000 B.C. (clay texts found at Jemdet Nasr). However, the oldest known African writing systems are several centuries older.
Here are 11 African writing systems you should know about to dispel the myth that Africans were illiterate people.
Dr. Clyde Winters, author of The Ancient Black Civilizations of Asia, wrote that before the rise of the Egyptians and Sumerians there was a wonderful civilization in the fertile African Sahara, where people developed perhaps the world’s oldest known form of writing.
These inscriptions of what some archaeologists and linguists have termed “proto-Saharan,” near the Kharga Oasis west of what was considered Nubia, may date back as early as 5000 B.C.
Wadi El-Hol or ‘Proto-Sinaitic’ (2000 B.C. – 1400 B.C.)
In 1999, Yale University archaeologists identified an alphabetic script in Wadi El-Hol, a narrow valley between Waset (Thebes) and Abdu (Abydos) in southern Egypt. Dating to about 1900 B.C., the script bears resemblance to the Egyptian hieroglyphs, but also the much older “proto-Saharan” writing system.
A similar inscription that dates to 1500 B.C. was found in Serabit el-Khadim on Africa’s Sinai peninsula, and has been deemed by linguists to be the basis for the so-called “proto-Canaanite” and “Phoenician” scripts.
This provides proof that Phoenician writing began on the African continent.
Perhaps the most famous writing system of the African continent is the ancient Egyptian (Kemetic) hieroglyphs.
What many people do not know is that the Egyptians invented three scripts: hieroglyphic, hieratic and demotic. These scripts were used by Egyptians for thousands of years.
Hieroglyphic (4000 B.C. – 600 A.D.)
The ancient Egyptians called their hieroglyphic script “mdwt ntr” or “medu neter” (God’s words). The word “hieroglyph” comes from the Greek “hieros” (sacred) and “glypho” (inscriptions) and was first used by Clement of Alexandria (c. 200 A.D.) The hieroglyphic script was confined mainly to formal inscriptions on the walls of temples and tombs.
Hieratic (3200 B.C. – 600 AD)
Ancient Egyptian hieratic writing was a simplified form of the hieroglyphics, used for day-to-day business and administrative and scientific documents throughout the dynastic history of both Kemet and Kush (3200 B.C. – 600 A.D.). Some linguists have also shown similarities between hieratic and the alphabetic proto-Saharan writing.
Demotic (650 B.C. – 600 A.D.)
The term “demotic” was used by Greek writer-historian, Herodotus (484 – 425 B.C.), to distinguish it from the hieratic script.
Whereas “hieratic” connotes “priestly,” the term “demotic” is derived from the Greek word “demos,” which means common people.
The demotic script is the only ancient Egyptian script that was used by just about every Egyptian. It is potentially the world’s first cursive or flowing script, and was mostly confined to pottery and papyri.
It is very important to note that “demotic” was introduced in Kemet’s 25th Dynasty, which had Nubian or Kushitic origins.
Nsibidi (5000 B.C. – present)
Nsibidi is an ancient script used to write various languages in West Central Africa. Most notably used by the Uguakima and Ejagham (Ekoi) people of Nigeria and Cameroon, nsibidi is also used by the nearby Ebe, Efik, Ibibio, Igbo and Uyanga people.
The nsibidi set of symbols is independent of Roman, Latin or Arabic influence, and is believed by some scholars to date back to 5000 B.C., but the oldest archaeological evidence ever found (monoliths in Ikom, Nigeria) dates it to 2000 B.C.
Similar to the Kemetic medu neter, nsibidi is a system of standardized pictographs. In fact, both nsibidi and the Egyptian hieroglyphs share several of the exact characters.
Nsibidi was divided into sacred and public versions, however, Western education and Christian indoctrination drastically reduced the number of nsibidi-literate people, leaving the secret society version as the last surviving form of the symbols.
Still, nsibidi was transported to Cuba and Haiti via the Atlantic slave trade, where the anaforuana and veve symbols derived from the west African script.
Tifinagh or ‘Lybico-Berber’ or ‘Mande’ (c. 3000 B.C. – present)
The Amajegh a-Mazigh (Tuaregs), the Black people who mainly inhabit a vast area of West Africa, including present-day Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, southern Algeria and southern Libya, still use the tifinagh script and are the only known group of Tamazight speakers who have used it continuously since antiquity.
However, the larger Tamazight-speaking community of the Sahara region has begun to adopt the tifinagh script.
Vai (3000 B.C. – present)
It’s a highly advanced syllabary writing system with more than 210 distinct characters representing various consonants and vowel sounds used in the Vai language (a descendant of ancient Mande).
The popular story told about Vai is that it’s a wholly unique script invented circa 1830 by a West African whose friends helped him remember the writing system in a dream. However, evidence of its antiquity comes from inscriptions from Goundaka, Mali, that date to 3000 B.C.
‘Meroitic’ or Napatan (800 B.C. – 600 A.D.)
The so-called “Meroitic” script was developed sometime around 800 B.C. in Napata, a city-state of Nubia in what today is northern Sudan. The script remained in use after the capital moved to Meroe until the seventh century A.D. Thus some historians and linguists believe a more appropriate name for the script would be “Napatan,” in reference to the first known place of use.
Archaeologists have found countless inscriptions on stelae, temple walls and statues, and a few linguists have attempted to translate the text. It’s debated whether the Napatan script has been deciphered, but the current consensus is that the script is a wholly African language, with close similarities to modern languages of Taman (spoken in Darfur and Chad), Niyma (in northern Sudan) and Nubian (southern Egypt).
Ge’ez or ‘Ethiopic’ (800 B.C. – present)
The Ge’ez script is an advanced syllabary script consisting of 231 characters used for writing in several Ethiopic languages. It is unquestionably one of the oldest writing systems in continuous use anywhere in the world.
Although the original Ge’ez language is only spoken in Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Tawahedo churches and the Beta Israel churches, the Ge’ez script is mainly used by speakers of Amharic, Tigre and Tigrinya, and many others.
The oldest-known evidence of Ge’ez writing can be found on the Hawulti stela, which dates to the pre-Aksumite era or roughly 800 B.C.
‘Old Nubian’ (800 A.D. – 1500 A.D.)
The so-called “Old Nubian” script is a descendant of both ancient Napatan and Coptic, and the Old Nubian tongue is an ancestor of the modern-day Nubian languages, such as Nobiin, Mahasi–Fadijja and Dongolawi.
It was used throughout the medieval Christian kingdom of Makuria and its satellite Nobadia. The language is preserved in at least 100 pages of documents, mostly of a religious nature.