Thursday, September 22, 2016

The History of Writing


The history of writing is of interest here due to questioning when "primary" records of genealogical interest first appeared. In other words, when can we really begin to trust the genealogy that I have shown so far and what I will be showing in future blogs.

In the most recent genealogy (the past 500 years), genealogists really want the proof of a "primary source", which is a written source record that was written at the time of the actual occurrence of an event. For example, if we record a birth date and place in our genealogy records (or database) or even the existence of a given person, the best source would be something like a birth certificate or church christening record where the correct date of birth and christening and full child name with parents names were written within a few days of the event. Of course, even this type of record can be in error if the scribe wrote down a mistaken date or parent's name, etc. But this type of record is of more value than someone who writes something down years later.  A bygdebok (which will eventually discuss), for example, which is a Norwegian book compiled from various primary sources is itself a "secondary source".

What I have found - speaking mostly of Norwegian genealogy which I have done a lot of - is that about the time Norway converted to Lutheranism in the 1500's we begin to get reasonably accurate recordings of the entire population in church records of christenings (births), deaths and marriages. Prior to that time the written records typically only include merchants, nobility and royalty. I have found that research in Wales is more difficult, as good primary records for all the population is even scant in the early 1800's. Again, as elsewhere in Europe (and around the world), prior to this time only "important" people like rulers and nobility will have genealogical information.

Going even further back in these royal and noble lines in Scandinavia, we find the Icelandic Sagas which were written down in the 9th through 11th centuries CE - about 1000 years ago maximum. However, these sagas will often record genealogy and events that occurred many thousands of years earlier. Many of them were passed down orally for many generations before being recorded. So one would question the accuracy of these records. These sagas are the source of much of my early genealogy - prior to about 1000 CE.

Even earlier, the Romans kept some reasonably trustworthy records a couple of thousand years ago and I have some genealogy on some of the Roman Emperors and nobility, also the Byzantine Emperors and some European continental royalty. I would believe that these records are reasonably accurate at least for their events and genealogy  due to the importance of these people. However, where genealogy from hundred or thousands of years earlier was written down this can become questionable.

Moving even further back in time I would think we could trust some of the genealogies from the "civilized" western culture where we do have "primary" writings: the Greeks, the Egyptians and the Mesopotamian cultures.

Although there are some really early proto-writings from China in the 7th millennium BCE, the first writings were mostly symbolic and weren't really "literature" where one could read a story or obtain genealogical information. Cuneiform script appeared in Mesopotamia about 3400 BCE.  There seems to appear some fragments of genealogical information, such as the Sumerian and Egyptian Rulers, but much of these really old inscriptions are almost impossible to connect to more recent genealogy. 

The oldest genealogy I have on the Persians is about 800 BCE and for the Egyptian Pharaohs maybe 2000 BCE (and that is only back to the 11th Dynasty and even there it can be questionable). Biblical genealogy was really not written down until just before or during the Babylonian exile of the 6th century BCE.  If one were to ignore the fantastically long ages of pre-flood inhabitants from the Book of Genesis and calculate around 30 years per generation prior to King David (abt 1000 BCE) you would have Adam living about 2000-1800 BCE rather than 4004 BCE as calculated by James Ussher, the Archbishop of Armagh in the 17th century. But even if some of the men mentioned early in Genesis were based on true people, I suspect that the genealogical connections are not correct, likely with many missing generations, as I have seen elsewhere in the Old Testament.

In other words, a primary source written down in 600 BCE may perhaps be reasonably accurate about current events and genealogy for the prior few generations, but what would have been written down at that time concerning happenings and genealogy from thousands of years earlier should be questioned and validated with whatever scientific means possible, such as archaeological evidence.

Bottom line: the further back in time the more questionable and unreliable the genealogical data.


Here are some links to help you learn more:

The History of Writing: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_writing
Cuniform Script: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuneiform_script
Icelandic Sagas: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sagas_of_Icelanders
Sumerian King List: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sumerian_King_List
Ussher Biblical Chronology: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ussher_chronology


Here are some useful books to read pertaining to the subjects in this blog



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