C is for Clay Balls

Inventory. Tax records. Rations of bread and beer to the workers. Storage of food during the winter. The earliest civilizations were built on keeping track of things.

Accounting via clay tablet, tokens, cuneiform. Photo from the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago

Before data warehouses. Before the invention of the steam engine, calculus, banking, or even the ox-drawn plow, somewhere between the wheel and the pyramids, the Mesopotamians created tracking systems.

We tend to think about the earliest people as hunter-gatherers. But nomadic hunters are the antithesis of foragers. Gatherers figured out eventually that if they stayed in the place with lots of bushes, bare survival turns into surplus food. Domestic the cow rather than chasing after it, figure out how to plant barley, and you have farming. Farming leads to population growth, and suddenly you have 40,000 people living in the Fertile Crescent, building cities and empires. You need armies to protect your grain, which requires the farmers to give surplus to a central authority to pay soldiers. Now you’ve invented taxation and a centralized administration.

Photo of broken clay ball with tokens inside, from the Oriental Institute, @8000 BCE.
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