It is commonly said that the history of a civilization begins with the arrival of writing, as it is then allowed to have historical memories, communicate among population and ease the complex processes of administration and trade. Precursors of writing appeared in Prehistorical era as paintings and petroglyphs on wood and rock. Although they were used for religious rituals, some Neolithic petroglyphs were a communication tool, such as in Scandinavia, where they were used to delimit territories between tribes. Some supposedly cartographic and astronomic maps have benn found too.
Drawings, ideas and phonemes
A few millennia before Christ, the new needs of urban societies lead to the creation of writing systems more or less standardized. These systems appear independently in various places around the planet, but it is interesting to point out that all of them follow the logical evolution of human brain: starting with pictograms, or symbolic illustrations of objects as they are. These signs progressively move away from concretism and unicity typical of petroglyhps and derive in pure representations of concepts and ideas, called ideograms. Obviously, as they represent universal ideas, similar symbols are found in many non related ancient scripts -idea of man is the same everywhere, and symbols representing man do not differ much-.
Among the first logographic -i.e. composed by pictograms and ideograms- the most relevant ones are those developed in Middle East around fourth millennium before Christ. In Mesopotamia and Egypt, engraved clay tokens had always been used for accounting commercial products. This derived in Mesopotamia, around 3400 BC, to clay tablets on which numerals, and then pictograms, were engraved with triangular wedges. This is called as cuneiform script, where signs were drawings performed by complex combinations of notches. From 2900 BC, pictograms became increasingly simple and abstract, and eventually some lost their meaning and represented syllables of Sumerian language-what is called phonetic instead of logographic-. However, some writing systems as Hurrian and Hittite evolved from cuneiform in its purely logographic phase, that is why they have been very difficult, or impossible, to decipher by archaeologists. Progressively, from 6th century BC, cuneiform scripts were replaced by aramaic ones.
Egyptian writing system, dated from a similar time, was related with cuneiform, although commonly written on stone or plaster, and later on papyrus, with a more advanced and stylized technique. In Egype logogram systems are known since 3200 BS, from which appeared, one thousand years later, the famous hieroglyphs. These were systems composed by logograms, determinatives -that precised the contextual meaning- and phonemes, which were, effectively, the first alphabet in History, considering that alphabets use a sign for every sound or phoneme. Its use evolved to Meroitic, and expanded replacing logograms around Mesopotamia, where appeared during the last millennium before Christ, alphabets on cuneiform script, such as Ugaritic and Persian.
These writing systems were difficult to master, and during some centuries, only the elitist class of scribes had the knowledge to do it. All the literature in that period came out from different scribe schools, where people from high social classes entered at the service of temples or military authorities. In Mesopotamia, when cuneiform adapted to new dominant languages during Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian times, and in Egypt with the adoption of Demotic, writing was simplified and extended its use among most of the population, despite the efforts of scribes to keep their position by using cult and ancient scripts, Sumerian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyph, getting further from popular writing.
The Phoenician transcendence
Around the 11th century BC, an alphabetic form of hieroglyph, the hieratic, evolved. In Africa horn it became the Ge'ez or Ethiopic alphabet, and northwards it was adopted by Semitic language speakers to become the Phoenician alphabet, of abjad type -i.e. without specific phonemes for vowels-.
Later, together with Phoenician colonization, it turned into the main writing system in the Mediterranean, from which most current alphabets arose. In its Western variant, the Greeks adopted this alphabet and introduced vowels, from which Etruscan and Latin alphabets were directly developed. The latter only changed in format during the Middle Age -in the Carolingian Empire lower-case letters appeared-, and thanks to the spreading of Christianism and translation of the Bible, expanded around Occident. It had to compete in Eastern Europe, though, with Cyrillic, an evolution of Glagolitic, a variant of Greek established in the 9th Century by Saint Cyril. Cyrillic, invented in the 10th Century by Saint Clement of Ohrid, in Byzantium, was used in liturgies and the Bible all around the Orthodox Church territory -recently, in the 18th Century, Romania adopted back the Latin alphabet-.
In Egypt, Coptic appeared in the 1st Century BC as a transformation of ancient demotic on Greek alphabet and used by Christians in the country. Among Celtic and Germanic population, Ogham and Runic alphabets were spread and used before Christianization, sculpted on stone or wood, with ritual or magical aim. Other Greek derived alphabets appeared as practical solutions, to allow Bible translations adaptable to the phonetics of the language. In the 4th Century, the bishop Ulfilas created in Nicopolis the Gothic alphabet, that replaced Runic scripts and was used in Northern Europe for centuries. Armenian alphabet was invented in the beginning of the 5th century by Saint Mesrob with the same objective, similarly to the mysterious Georgian alphabet, supposedly related with Aramaic, too.
Eastern variant of Phoenician, the Aramaic, remained an abjad. From it, Hebrew directly arose in the 10th Century BC, and some centuries later, from a popular variation in lower-case letters, Arabic and Brahmi. Because of the expansion of Islam during the Middle Ages, Arabic became the official writing in the great muslim empires, from Al-Andalus to Persia. It progressively replaced other Aramaic alphabets, such as Orkhon and Sogdian in ancient Turkish territories, and Tifinagh, of Berber origin, currently used very seldom by Touaregs.
Aramaic writing arrived to India through Persian traders, and extended around the peninsula during the 3rd Century in the Asoka reign, who already used a form of Devanagari alphabet to write his edicts. Later, this family of alphabets sufferd many changes, in order to adapt the phonetics of Semitic languages to the different ones from India to Southeast of Asia -Devanagari, East Nagari, Oriya, Gujarati, Ranjana...-. Because of Buddhism, ancient Brahmi alphabet was used in practicing territories. Northwards, it derived towards Mongol, Tibetan and Phags-Pa alphabets. The latter, created at the time of Kublai Khan to adapt better to Chinese and Mongolian phonetics, eventually became a model for the king Sejong of Korea, in the 15th Century, to create a new alphabet that combined Brahmi syllabic blocks with ideograms and phonemes to replace the Chinese, not adecuate to Korean phonetics. After centuries of harsh resistance from Aristocratic classes and Confucian adepts, Hangul alphabet became official with the arrival of Korean nationalism later in the 19th Century.
Writings of the East
With a completely independent origin, Chinese calligraphy appeared. It is certainly known that around 1500 BS, during the Shang dynasty, a writing system already existed, although recent findings in central China discovered signs similar to modern Chinese in sculptures dated from the ninth millennium before Christ, which can become the World most ancient scripts. Chinese language, originally, was formed by monosyllabic words, so that every character could only define a concept -ideograms-. Currently, it is the only writing not based on a phonetical alphabet, although many of its characters show pronunciation indications. At the diversity of existing Chinese languages, during the Qin dynasty the same script was formalized for all of them, still in use nowadays.
In the 4th Century, Chinese arrived to Japan, but Chinese calligraphy was not used to write Japanese, used by illiterate, until the invention of man'yogana. This syllabic block based script, originally used to write poetry, gave phonetic value, instead of semantic, to Chinese characters, making it apt to the language. From man'yogana, current hiragana and katakana come. Ideograms or kanji are copies from Chinese, used in the beginning to define new concepts coming from China. In the Meiji era, efforts were driven to simplify the language and introduce Latin characters in imported words.
Of course, the success of these writing systems lead to the disappearance of other ones, appeared in parallel thousands of years ago, but replaced by these because of being less adecuate to language or sociopolitical reasons. Some examples are Harappan script in the Indus valley, not deciphered yet, or the Minoic-Mycenic linear system, disappeared upon the arrival of Greek alphabet.
The huge diffusion of Latin writing all around the World, after the colonization and use in Europe of better supports for it, especially paper and printing, lead to its adoption by most languages. This happened in places where there was no writing method, and also in others where some primitive sign systems existed, generally ideographic. They all were eventually displaced and disappeared. In precolonial America the most developed was Maya system, sculpted on stone or painted on ceramics, of laborious ideograms, lost after the fall of the culture. It is also believed that Incas had one, made from knotted streams, as these formed a symbol system with repetitions, not deciphered yet though. In Africa there also were indigenous writing systems, such as Nsibidi system used by the secret society of Efiks, who governed Nigeria.