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Literacy and Large Group Living

Daniel A. Mullins (DPhil Candidate, University of Oxford)

Literacy emerged and spread primarily in large, complex societies. Why? Did writing and recordkeeping systems facilitate the emergence of significant increases in polity size and social complexity or the other way around? Or is some third as yet unidentified factor responsible for both? These questions are addressed using a sample of the three best attested historical examples of independent script emergence (i.e., ca. 2400 B.C. Mesopotamia; ca. 1200 B.C. China; ca. 50 B.C. Mesoamerica). Taking into account the varied technological, material, and historical environments in which these scripts arose and their diverse functional applications once present, I contend that pervasive anthropological theories of the origin and evolution of writing and recordkeeping systems fail to account for the complex relationship between large group living and literacy. Therefore, a new theory of the origins of literate behaviours is required.  

Recent archaeological and palaeographic findings shed light on how the world’s first writing and recordkeeping systems and their functional applications responded to problems posed by increases in group size and social complexity. These findings also indicate that the world’s first standardised scripts may have been by-products of these increases. Citing recent evidence from studies of human visual cognition and memory, I contend that writing is a result of several previously unappreciated factors. These factors include the emergence of full-time specialist sign users and the ‘repetitious intensification’ of precursor sign systems. This view accords with recent studies of socio-cultural evolution, proposing that routinisation greatly increases the stability, coherence, comprehensiveness, and standardisation of cultural systems. I then submit comparative palaeographic and archaeological evidence suggesting that the process of routinisation preceded and facilitated the emergence of literate forms around the world. In other words, I argue that high-frequency interactions within groups of specialists, complex shared networks of doctrines and narratives, doctrinal conformity, and other hallmarks of routinisation provide a fertile environment for the initial development and spread of the world’s first scripts.

The various forms of cooperation needed to maintain large-scale, complex societies may not have been possible in the absence of writing and record keeping. Evolved cognitive tools necessary to sustain cooperation in small groups (i.e., reciprocity, reputation, social norms and norm enforcement, and group identity and empathy) are not enough to create or maintain cooperation in large group living. The large-scale samples of ethnographic data that are available support the association between literacy and large, complex groups, finding that the association between measures of literacy and group size is positive and non-linear with a monotonically increasing mean once group size reaches 200 or more persons. Citing recent experimental, palaeographic data, and grammatological data, I explore the ways in which writing and recordkeeping systems and their functional applications solve many of the challenges to cooperation posed by large group living. For example, external mnemonic and tracking devices such as receipts and other transactional records allow us to transcend the severe limits of our evolved cognition and increase the number of interactions and transactions we can reliably monitor. Similarly, external identification devices such as a serial number or a criminal record function to identify, track, and potentially punish otherwise anonymous interactants in more complex exchange systems than would otherwise be possible. In these ways, literate systems facilitated the emergence of ever-larger, more complex polities.