On earth, the first writing systems developed for accounting. You just cannot run an empire like Egypt or Mesopotamia without writing down who paid his taxes. Let alone organize mega-projects such as the construction of the big pyramids. Such empires were religious: Kings ruled, because they were gods themselves, or the power was given to them by the gods. That is why Egyptian temples doubled as the local IRS office. So it was quite natural to write not only agricultural data, but also religious texts (and laws). Those early scripts used markings in wet clay, writing on papyrus or carving in stone. Add seven thousand years of development, and --well-- not much has changed: Symbols are no longer on clay or papyrus, but on paper or a computer screen (while clay would still work fine). You can find a scientist on a lab bench, taking notes on paper. An ancient Egyptan would not recognize any of the equipment, except for pen and paper.

The writing system for my culture starts like this: When a citizen paid his taxes, they received a string with seashells on it, the number of seashells depended on the amount of goods delivered, the kind of seashell on the concrete good, e.g. a yellow seashell for grain, a red one for meat, etc. Let us assume that we have the fauna to provide shells that are identical, except for color. Such strings were also used for accounting. This quickly leads to the development of shell money, as well as a writing system based on differently-colored shells.

Add seven thousand years of history, what does the writing system look like? How does the lab scientist take notes? The real-world example points to "no change at all", and gives the scientist a couple of boxes with pearls in different colors. However, "writing" this way would be a lot slower and more tedious than writing on paper. Also, the logistics of having the pearls you need would be more complicated. I am wondering if -- and how -- the system would change, to allow for faster and easier writing.

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    $\begingroup$ "This quickly leads to the development of shell money, as well as a writing system based on differently-colored shells": no it doesn't, at least not necessarily. If in your story it does, then it does. It is entirely up to you; in the universe of your story you are the one and only almighty god. (And, in case you didn't know: the Incas of Peru had a multi-color system for notating something; it was not a writing system, but it was a systematic way of memorizing we don't know what. And the ancient Egyptians did mix words with black and red ink.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Sep 26, 2021 at 11:12
  • $\begingroup$ "Add seven thousand years of history..." and the writing systems present might have very little in common with their origins. Early uses of cuneiform and heiroglyphics are quite different from the text we're currently using to communicate. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 26, 2021 at 18:03
  • $\begingroup$ I recommend you look at Brandon Sanderson's Warbreaker. It might give you inspiration. The writing system, and much of the culture, is based on color. However, I believe the colored, painted writing system is largely a ceremonial one. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 26, 2021 at 18:19
  • $\begingroup$ Rather than post an answer, let me point something out: while shells might be used for accounting (not dissimilar to the Yap islands' Rai Stones), they'd never be used for writing or communication. Drawing symbols in dirt or sand is more primitive than using shells and would precede the shells in development. What the shells would influence is numbers and mathematics - but not writing or communication. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Sep 27, 2021 at 5:58

1 Answer 1


With the development of a shell based writing system, someone will eventually get tired of lugging around a bag of differently coloured seashells just to take notes, tired of gluing them down so that their notes don't scatter when moved and so on. Instead, they decide to find some kind of medium - be it a piece of leather, a cloth or whatever else - and attempt to draw the shells they have in their mind on it.

To do this, they require not just any writing tool, but also one that can write in a variety of colours - and since we're presumably speaking about a sea-adjacent civilization given the extensive use of seashells, they may find a way to gather inks and dye materials from the sea and its flora and fauna or even use the seashells themselves ground into powder and suspended in a liquid to give it colour.

Once this person has both the colour and the dye-receptive writing medium, they can begin to draw pictures of shells. But oh no - the shells are uniform, so a drawn line of shells just looks like circles in slightly different colours! To alleviate the problem with telling the colours apart, which is more difficult than with the actual shells, this person may find it useful to add some kind of notation inside the circle - dots, lines and what have you. These are used to specify the exact colour of the shell, letting a reader determine what letter or syllable it's supposed to represent.

Going further in evolution, a reformist ruler or an expanding merchant class may find that drawing circles around every letter is time consuming or wasteful, instead moving their writing to mostly or entirely omit the circles and leave only symbols formed out of dots and lines, each corresponding to a naturally occuring - or perhaps already extinct - colour of seashell.

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    $\begingroup$ For a similar problem in real history, consider the development of heraldic hatchings to represent heraldic tinctures in a monochrome medium. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Sep 26, 2021 at 11:56

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