Posts Tagged ‘oldest book ever written’

The First Book Ever Written

August 2, 2010

Let’s begin at the beginning. The first book ever written.  No.  It isn’t The Book of Genesis. Contrary to popular belief, at least  in  certain circles, it wasn’t written by God or Adam or even Moses.


The invention of writing marks the boundary between pre-history and history. The first written language  that we know of  was archaic cuneiform. It is believed to have appeared  around 3400 BC during the early period of  ancient Sumerian civilization in the region  between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers  in what is now Iraq.  Cuneiform  was originally a pictographic language gradually becoming syllabic and  composed of wedge shaped characters ( the word, “cuneiform,” comes from the latin term cuneus meaning wedge.)   The  earliest writings  were on clay tablets and were probably administrative lists.

The first written story  that has come down to us  is The Epic of Gilgamesh.  It is a mythologized account of an historical figure, Gilgamesh, a ruler of the Sumerian city-state of Uruk,  believed to have ruled  sometime between 2700-2500 BC.

There are a number of fragmentary  versions of the story. The oldest known    are dated around 2100 BC.  But some scholars believe  that these could be transcriptions of earlier Sumerian texts.  Integrated versions have been found dating from around 2000-1700 BC.   The most complete “standard”  version  was written on 12 clay  tablets sometime  between 1500 – 1200 BC.  It was discovered in the ruins of   the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal’s library in Nineveh, which was the largest library in the pre-Hellenic ancient world.

The definition of  “book” has  become more flexible in the last few years. It used to be that  a “book”  was defined as    a collection of  printed sheets of  bound paper,  encased between two covers.  But with the advent of the e-book, the definition is changing almost daily.  One would have to conclude that a  story written and read on clay tablets  is no less a book than  one on an iPad.

The Gilgamesh Epic continues to be available in hardback, paperback and as an e-book edition. There is only  one copy  available on clay tablets. This can  be found at the British Museum.

We don’t know the first book ever written in the Americas, but the oldest book in the Western Hemisphere  still in existence is a Maya fig bark manuscript, believed to have been written in the 13th century AD. It is called the Dresden Codex, named for  the city in which it resides.

The first book published  in North America was  The Whole Booke of Psalmes. It was printed in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1640. Eleven copies of this first edition  are known to exist.