Annoying for some, clickbait for others, listicles are everywhere. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, ChatGPT defines them as follows:

A listicle is a type of article or blog post that is presented in the form of a list, with each item on the list representing a paragraph or section. Listicles are often used to present information in a fun and easy-to-digest way, and they can cover a wide range of topics. Common examples include “10 Things You Didn’t Know About X,” “The Top 5 Y of All Time,” and “The 7 Best Z for Your Home.”

While listicles can be a useful way to present information since they are easy to scan and understand, they are usually thought of as a modern phenomenon. So, imagine my surprise at discovering that listicles are actually one of humanity’s oldest writing systems!

In the beginning, there was the Thing

As LitHub explains, a brief sketch of the origin of writing goes like this: in the beginning, there was the Thing, and the Thing needed counting. What the Thing was doesn’t matter much. A flock of sheep, perhaps, or sheaves of barley: profits of the new system of settled agriculture, which had allowed cities with tens of thousands of occupants to appear for the first time in history. The women and men who dwelt in these cities wanted to keep track of their new wealth and decided to use clay tokens for the job.

These tiny objects, the size of game pieces, were shaped like cones, discs, triangles, and cylinders. They can be found scattered throughout the archaeological record like errant dice. The earliest date back to 7500 BC, in what would become the Mesopotamian civilization of Sumer, home of the Sumerians. The tokens seem to have been useful, as they multiply in form and number over the centuries. As city life became more varied in Mesopotamia, with inhabitants trading not only raw materials like wool and metal, but also processed goods like oil, beer, and honey, more tokens were created to represent these resources.

Their appearance became more complex, with scratches added to their surface, adding a graphic element to their meaning. Fast forward a few millennia, and, like a shopper burdened with too much pocket change, the Mesopotamians were fed up with their clutter of tokens. To better organize them, they began making clay containers known as bullae to enclose them into groups. These bullae started appearing around 3500 BC, as bumpy spheres the size of tennis balls, filled with clay tokens and sealed like a baby’s rattle. One bulla could then be used to track multiple items.

Sumerian bulla | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Image source: Wikipedia

This technology had its advantages and disadvantages. If you are, for example, a Sumerian priest recording tributes from farmers, you’d be happy that your clay spheres couldn’t be tampered with, but annoyed that you couldn’t check their contents without breaking them. So, one day, while making your latest bulla, before you put the tokens inside, you press them firmly onto the clay’s wet exterior as a reminder of the contents.

The birth of modern writing

It was the work of a moment but a crucial step, says archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat, who first recognized the importance of these clay tokens as the precursors of modern writing. It was here, she says, that “three-dimensional tokens were reduced to two-dimensional markings” constituting “the first signs of writing.” And it was a profound cognitive leap. “It is the beginning of a new communication system, and certainly had to have reflected something enormous in the brain,” she says. “It was liberating.”

Over the centuries, this system evolved. First, instead of impressing tokens onto clay, scribes began tracing their outlines, creating pictographs, or pictures of words.

Second, realizing that all the information they wanted was now stored on the exterior of the bullae and their contents were redundant, the scribes squashed these clay balls into thick tablets, removing the need for tokens altogether. Third, they began using different signs to signify the item being counted and its quantity. Instead of tracing a pictograph of a jar of oil to represent each jar of oil, they began using separate symbols for “what the thing is” and “how much of it there is.” With this change, you have not only the beginning of formal number systems and writing, but also the beginning of measurement.

Enter the Cuneiforms

Throughout the course of the third millennium BC, the pictographs on the bullae would morph into increasingly abstract signs: series of wedges pressed into clay using cut reeds that represented syllables and consonants, not just objects. This is the script we know as cuneiform, meaning “wedge-shaped,” which was used by all the major Mesopotamian civilizations, including the Sumerians and their successors, the Babylonians and Assyrians.

By 2500 BC, this writing system had become “sufficiently plastic and flexible to express without difficulty the most complicated historical and literary compositions,” but from this very early period we’ve recovered only a handful of literary texts. Instead, the overwhelming majority of unearthed writing tablets—some tens of thousands—are administrative in purpose.

Cuneiform tablet | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Cuneiform tablet with a hymn to Marduk. Source: The Met 

With this change, you have not only the beginning of formal number systems and writing, but also the beginning of measurement.

There’s some debate over whether this invention of writing enabled the first states to emerge, giving their rulers the ability to oversee and allocate resources, or whether it was the demands of the early states that in turn led to the invention of writing. Either way, the scribal arts offered dramatic new ways to process knowledge, allowing for not only superior organization, but also superior thinking. Some scholars argue that the splitting of noun and number on clay tablets didn’t just allow kings to better track their taxes but was tantamount to a cognitive revolution: a leap forward that allowed humans to abstract and categorize the world around them like never before.

Think about how spoken language tends to place information in a definite context. When recalling your day, you might say: “I went to the shops and bought eggs, flour, and milk to make pancakes.” The list, by comparison, abandons continuity for atomization, removing individual items from a wider narrative (to buy: eggs, flour, milk). It fosters what psychologists call “chunking”—the process of breaking down large quantities of data into manageable subdivisions and measuring out the world in discrete packages. Most of us are aware instinctively of the benefits of this approach. When we’re wracked by vague terror about tasks yet to be tackled, we often resort to list-making, paring down the madness of the world into something that can be managed one job at a time.

The emergence of science

The process of constructing a thematic list “leads to increments of knowledge, to the organization of experience.” It is a precursor to organized philosophical systems, and, eventually, to science. Centuries later, in the fourth century BC, Aristotle would turn the list format into the bedrock of his thinking by divvying up all of reality in his great work, the Categories.

This grand taxonomy draws many arcane distinctions: between the Eternal Mobile Substances (the heavens) and the Destructible Mobile Substances (the sublunary bodies); between the Unensouled Destructible Mobile Substances (elements) and the Ensouled Destructible Mobile Substances (living beings); and so on.

None of the examples of this form prior to the ancient Greeks are anywhere near as philosophically complex, but they are elaborate and beautiful just the same.

And it all started with the humble list…