The Lost Language of the Ghassulians: Proto-Writing at Nahal Mishmar?

A Response to “When did people start writing in the Levant?” By Nissim Amzallag

While Amzallag’s proposal to see the Nahal Mishmar treasures as a visual code is ingenious, it suffers from several linguistic problems. We cannot be certain that the Ghassulians spoke a Semitic language and—even if they did—the rebuses that Amzallag proposes would not work in a Semitic language of the late 5th or early 4th millennium BCE.

See Also: On the Origin of Alphabetic Writing
Hebrew or Not?: Reviewing the Linguistic Claims of Douglas  Petrovich’s The World’s Oldest Alphabet

By Aren M. Wilson-Wright
Radboud University, Nijmegen
March 2020


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Article Comments

Submitted by melliott1 on Thu, 03/19/2020 - 14:26


Submitted by M. Elliott for Nissim Amzallag

For accepting the theory exposed here, we need obviously to assume that languages spoken in Southern in the Chalcolithic period were Semitic. In the absence of trace of any other family of language in this area, it remains the most straightforward hypothesis. However, throughout the last decades, specialists reconsidered this premise. Based on differences between the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age culture, they suggest that, in the fourth millennium BCE, new Semitic speakers coming from Africa introduced in the Ancient Near East, a culture which spread eastwards up to Mesopotamia.[1]  However, this hypothesis cannot explain why there is no common appellation of copper in Semitic languages, an expected feature if the spread and differentiation of Semitic languages occurred after the domestication of metals. And if these populations ignored the metal, we expect its appellation to be borrowed from the non-Semitic local background. But this is not the observed situation. Nothing in the metallurgical lexicon in Southern Levant is borrowed from non-Semitic languages, despite the outstanding level of the Ghassulian metallurgy. Even the discovery of furnace metallurgy in Southern Levant, in the Chalcolithic period, is reflected by the differentiation of the Semitic root qyn.

Furthermore, recent excavations reveal that the transition between Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age was less brutal in Southern Levant than previously assumed. The hypothesis of invasion/replacement is not necessary for accounting for the transition between the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age in the Southern Levant. And by extension, the hypothesis of the non-Semitic nature of the Ghassulian dialects becomes unjustified.  The reader interested may find the bibliographical references to the claims exposed here (as well as other arguments) in pp. 50-54 of my paper published in 2018 (Visual Code in Nahal Mishmar: The Earliest Case of Proto-Writing?  Antiguo Oriente 16: 45-92.)


[1] Vardi and Gilead 2013; Zohar 1992. This latter opinion is supported by phylogenetic analyses suggesting differentiation of Semitic languages only from the fourth millennium BCE. See Kitchen et al. 2009.

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