Why, according to Guns, Germs, and Steel, did some people not develop writing?

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In Chapter 12 of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond discusses the invention of writing. He mentions that it was invented independently in a small number of places (Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica, China, and Egypt) and spread either directly (as in cases of conquest) or through a process of idea diffusion, i.e., people coming into contact with societies that had writing and either adapting writing systems or creating their own in response.

There are two major reasons why other societies did not develop writing independently or at an early period. The first has to do with practicality. Even if a hunter-gatherer or nomadic society encountered the idea of writing, a mobile society would not be able to carry around an archive of documents even if they wished to do so. Instead, important cultural information was preserved in oral traditional epic, which could be stored in people's minds rather than on physical objects.

Next, only complex settled societies need written records. Land ownership and taxation records, for example, are only needed by large urban societies. Registering births, marriages, and citizenship are only required in large societies because in small tribes, everyone knows who is married to whom, which children were born to which parents, and all the details of kinship networks. Extensive trade and labeling of goods follows on having a significant economic surplus and trading via third parties, something unlikely to be needed by smaller and less settled societies.

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In Chapter 12, Diamond argues that writing arose independently in two places, ancient Sumer and Mesoamerica (he notes that Egypt and China are also possibilities; although, the evidence is less conclusive). Why just two? Some of the reasons Diamond gives for why certain societies developed writing while others did not include the following:

  • Early writing systems were incomplete and limited in their range of expression. It is possible that writing did not spread because, for some societies—those based on hunting/gathering, for example—writing as it existed was simply not useful.
  • Only a very few people knew how to write, and the scribes who did it were a specialized class that only specific societies—societies based on agriculture, able to generate food surpluses—could support.
  • Geographic isolation also played a significant role in slowing the spread of writing. Examples Diamond mentions include Hawaii, Tonga, and West Africa.
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The answer to this can be found in Chapter 12.  There, Diamond tells us that some people did not develop writing because they did not need it.

Writing, Diamond says, is not something that you would invent just because.  There needs to be a good reason to go to all the trouble.  In general, this reason only arose with agriculture.  When societies developed agriculture, they came to be more complex and wealthier.  This led to a need for writing.  Writing was necessary to keep track of inventories and for governments to keep track of who owed how much in taxes.  

Thus, the people who developed agriculture were more likely to develop writing.  Societies that did not develop agriculture or who developed it late were less likely to develop writing.

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