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Who’s the First Person in History Whose Name We Know?

Editor’s Note: This post has updated to clarify a sentence about the gender of the ancient writer.  

“It’s me!” they’d say, and they’d leave a sign. Leave it on the cave wall. Maybe as a prayer, maybe a graffito, we don’t know.

This was 30,000 years ago. Writing hadn’t been invented, so they couldn’t chalk their names on the rock. Instead, they’d flatten their hand, blow dust over it, and leave a silhouette like this:

a handprint is outlined in an orange/red pigment on the reproduction of the prototype fac simile of the cave Chauvet
Prototype fac simile of the cave Chauvet—Pont d’Arc, negative hand painted by blowing pigments. Photograph by Laurent CERINO, REA, Redux
Photograph by Laurent CERINO, REA, Redux

And for 30, 40 centuries across Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Australia, this is how cavemen, cavewomen, cave kids, hunters, nomads, farmers, and soldiers left their mark.

Picture of layers and layers of hands painted onto a cave wall in Argentina
Cave of the Hands, Patagonia, Province of Santa Cruz, Argentina. Photograph by
Javier Etcheverry, VWPics, Redux
Photograph by Javier Etcheverry, VWPics, Redux

Every one of these handprints belonged to an individual, presumably with a name, a history, and stories to tell. But without writing, we can’t know those stories. We call them hunter-gatherers, cave people, Neolithic tribes. We think of them in groups, never alone. Tens of thousands of generations come and go, and we can’t name a single person before 3200 B.C., not a one. Then, in Mesopotamia, writing appears, and after that people could record their words, sometimes in phonetic symbols so we could listen in, hear them talking and, for the first time, hear someone’s name—our first individual.

So who was it?

Who is the first person in the recorded history of the world whose name we know?

Just Guessing Here

Would it be a she or a he? (I’m figuring a he, because writing was a new thing, and males are usually the early adopters.) [*Please see note at bottom of post for more on this.]

Drawing of of man and a woman, the woman is crossed out.
All drawings by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Would he be a king? Warrior? Poet? Merchant? Commoner? (I’m guessing not a commoner. To be mentioned in an ancient document, he’d need a reputation, tools, and maybe a scribe. He wouldn’t be poor.)

Drawing of a king, a warrior, a poet, a merchant, and a commoner, with the commoner crossed out

Would he be a person of great accomplishment or just an ordinary Joe? (The odds favor a well-regarded person, someone who is mentioned often. Regular Joes, I figured, would pop up irregularly, while a great king, a leading poet, or a victorious general would get thousands of mentions.)

Drawing of a king sitting in a chair with a trident-like stick, looking at writing in front of him

So I trolled the internet, read some books, and to my great surprise—the first name in recorded history isn’t a king. Nor a warrior. Or a poet. He was, it turns out … an accountant. In his new book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari goes back 33 centuries before Christ to a 5,000-year-old clay tablet found in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). It has dots, brackets, and little drawings carved on it and appears to record a business deal.

Picture of an ancient tablet depicting beer production Inanna Temple in Uruk
MS1717, © The Schøyen Collection, Oslo and London http://www.schoyencollection.com/24-smaller-collections/wine-beer/ms-1717-beer-inanna-uruk
© The Schøyen Collection, Oslo and London

It’s a receipt for multiple shipments of barley. The tablet says, very simply:

29,086 measures barley 37 months Kushim

“The most probable reading of this sentence,” Harari writes, “is: ‘A total of 29,086 measures of barley were received over the course of 37 months. Signed, Kushim.’ ”

Drawing of a man facing the viewer with a speech bubble over his left shoulder that says " of “Oh, Kushim!”

So who was “Kushim”? The word might have been a job title, not a person (maybe kushim meant “barley assessor”) but check the video down below. It suggests that Kushim was indeed a guy, a record keeper who counted things for others—in short, an accountant. And if Kushim was his name, then with this tablet, Harari writes, “we are beginning to hear history through the ears of its protagonists. When Kushim’s neighbours called out to him, they might really have shouted, ‘Kushim!’”

It’s pretty clear Kushim was not famous, not hugely accomplished, certainly not a king. So all of my hunches were off.

But wait. The Kushim tablet is just one of tens of thousands of business records found on the deserts of Iraq. A single example is too random. We need more. So I keep looking and find what may be the second, third, and fourth oldest names we know of. They appear on a different Mesopotamian tablet.

Ancient stone tablet featuring a male figure, hunting dogs, and boars from Mesopotamia
Administrative tablet with cylinder seal impression of a male figure, hunting dogs, and boars. 3100-2900 B.C. Jamdat Nasr, Uruk III style, southern region, Mesopotamia. Clay, H. 2 in. (5.3 cm). Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY
Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY

Once again, they are not A-list ancients. Dated to around 3100 B.C.—about a generation or two after Kushim—the tablet’s heading is, “Two slaves held by Gal-Sal.” Gal-Sal is the owner. Next come the slaves, “En-pap X and Sukkalgir.” So now we’ve got four names: an accountant, a slave owner, and two slaves. No kings. They don’t show up for another generation or so.

Drawing of four individuals: an accountant, a slave owner, and two slaves

The predominance of ordinary Sumerians doesn’t surprise Harari. Five thousand years ago, most humans on Earth were farmers, herders, and artisans who needed to keep track of what they owned and what they owed—and that’s how writing started. It was a technology for regular people, not a megaphone for the powerful.

“It is telling,” Harari writes, “that the first recorded name in history belongs to an accountant, rather than a prophet, a poet, or a great conqueror.” Most of what people did back then was business.

Kings come, kings go, but keeping track of your barley—your sheep, your money, your property—that’s the real story of the world.


 

*Note from Robert Krulwich: I see that this column has offended a whole bunch of you. Yes, as many of you point out, my viewpoint was white, male (and hung up on fame and power) and many of you have serious, and totally legitimate arguments with my assumptions. Now that I read your comments, I’m a little surprised, and a touch ashamed of myself. But the thing is—those were my assumptions. They were wrong. I say so.

This is a blog. So it’s designed to be personal, and confessional. So I want you to know who’s talking to you, and if you think I’m way off base, by all means, let me know. And in the end, if you read the totality, my column and your responses, the story I wrote gets deeper and richer. You call me out on my assumptions, you offer some of your own, and what actually happened, what it was really like to be alive 5,300 years ago becomes… well, an argument among moderns about ancients that we will never meet.


Scholars aren’t unanimous about who’s name is oldest in the historical record. Yuval Noah Harari’s new book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind gives the crown to Kushim. The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago goes for Gal-Sal and his slaves in their 2010-2011 annual report. Andrew Robinson, in his Writing and Script: A Very Short Introduction also champions Gal-Sal, but his book came earlier, so maybe Harari has scooped him. Here’s the video that argues for Kushim:

If the name Gal-Sal strikes some of you as familiar, it appears in the title of a 1942 Rita Hayworth/Victor Mature movie, My Gal Sal, about a songwriter who falls crazily in love with a singer on the vaudeville circuit named Sal (short for Sally Elliot). I watched it. It’s terrible. Kushim, meanwhile, survives. According to the blog Namespedia, it turns out that lots of Russian families call themselves Kushim to this day, and in the U.S., it’s a relatively popular first name. They’ve even got Kushim bar graphs!

123 thoughts on “Who’s the First Person in History Whose Name We Know?

  1. Am I a bad person for being disappointed that the first known name belongs to a bean counter (well, barley if you want to get picky about it) ?

    1. Dude, if you wrote “I like candy” you’d get negative feedback from folks on the Internet. I think some people troll the Internet all day looking for something to be “offended” by. I don’t know how these people get through the world with thier oh so sensitive feelings. It’s a good blog. Don’t be ashamed.

  2. Of course you do mean the first recorded name FOUND SO FAR.
    Why do academics always claim the ultimate knowledge when it is always being superceeded?

    1. Is that not implied? It’s the first recorded name that we know of, not the first recorded name ever and that we ever will know for all of time.

    2. The title is “Who’s the first person in history whose name we know”. Know being present tense. So “Whats the earliest recorded name we have found at this point in time”. It wasn’t saying “Whats the first recorded name in history”. So even if an earlier name is found this article will still be accurate for today’s date in history.

  3. What the hell? “Would it be a she or a he? (I’m figuring a he, because writing was a new thing, and males are usually the early adopters.)” Adopters of WHAT?

  4. What if Kushim was just an archaic word that has been lost or changed as the language evolved? What if it’s not a person’s identity but a new unnamed object or concept to which a designation was needed?
    What if the individual that wrote Kushim was just playing around with words and ideas or even learning them and made a mistake?

    1. It is possible that it could be a word for something that we have simply never seen before. That is exceedingly unlikely though. We have a great many examples of Sumerian cuneiform tablets. They are some durable stuff. Because of this, we have quite an extensive “dictionary” of cuneiform. Names are also some of the first things to stand out when deciphering new languages or writing systems. Names are going to be more unique than the common words, and used in a different kind of ways.

      This is basically a receipt. So it is also unlikely that it would include some obscure and uncommon wording in it. Probably not either is it that the author would be learning how to write with this, or creating new words. If you got a receipt from the store that was made by somebody still learning to write, or had weird abstract words, or made up words, wouldn’t you be a little ticked off? I would.

  5. women seem to be the written record keeper for sometime before the males from the tribe replaced them. In China, a writing system has been created by women , and for women only , called ‘nv shu”, –woman writings.

    1. What are they keeping track of? are you saying women were the first to do cave art? or the first to keep detailed records of a transactions? Because they are very different.

  6. Hey Peter Apps! You might be dissapointed BUT my name is Fabian Sandoval, “Fabian” means Bean Grower so this is pretty cool! And the coolest things is I’m 35 and 2 months ago I became a millionaire by selling for 12 companies, self employed so super cool!

  7. Uh I’m sorry “men are usually the early adopters” doesn’t sound very scientific…or true to me! Doesn’t mean it couldn’t be a man, I just doubt that you can put a blanket statement over history like that.

  8. Dear Mr. Krulwich, wouldn’t it be better (at least these days) to say that you “trawled” the internet? I’m certain you would never stoop to being a troll in the current cyber-usage. Heaven forfend.

    1. Well, history is pretty sexist. The Athenians used to diddle little boys and thought having sex with women was gross. If you would like to change sexism in history be my guest, but just because history is sexist doesn’t mean it’s not history.

  9. “Would it be a she or a he? (I’m figuring a he, because writing was a new thing, and males are usually the early adopters.)”.

    Exactly what evidence do you have to support the idea that females were neither innovators or early adopters of writing systems??

    1. Well what evidence do you have to provide that they aren’t. You can’t expect someone to debate with you if you don’t have any facts to back up your argument.

    1. Cave Art versus Receipt. I doubt some one would learn a boring written language just to never use it. Hand silhouettes were probably easy to make and fun. Making a tablet for goods exchanged over a period of time sounds much more tedious and boring. Not something I would be concerned about learning well if I had 12 kids and a house to look after. Which for that time period is what I would be doing as a women. It’s history, not your ideologies. Things were much different back then.

  10. I am not sure whether to be more pissed off about the assumption that the first people writing must have been men – because there is absolutely no reason to assume that there’s been gender segregation in the adoption of new technologies for the majority of human history – or the fact that the pictures here are of WHITE people, even though the ones they’re supposed to be depicting were Sumerians. Stop erasing women and people of colour from history. They have always been there.

  11. You know…that’s a very closed-minded spin on the role of women throughout history. What very, very broad brushstrokes you paint with, dude. I recognize your interest wouldn’t be peaked with each and every time a woman’s hand was proven to be the first to fiddle with something or figure something out. Sincer you’re a dude. But still…think of your audience, next time. We’re sitting here discussing that first bit when the rest of the article is intriguing too. Women read, dude. An awful lot. Guys are the visual stimulated folk (see what I did there?)

  12. I’m glad people are calling this out…what is the basis for this statement: “Would it be a she or a he? (I’m figuring a he, because writing was a new thing, and males are usually the early adopters.)”? It both fails to make sense and successfully writes women out of history…

    1. I feel he could have worded it differently but I think what he is really trying to say is men used to be the front of innovation because women were “house wives” and weren’t allowed to invent or hold jobs that existed outside of the home. So for things like a writing system to keep track of transactions and weapons, men were on the front of innovations. But who the fuck invented to broom? cutlery? Soap? Tables? and much more. The problem is you want women of history to have invented things in areas where men are known to have excluded them from. Why not look for innovations in areas we know they operated? Because post modern feminism is obsessed with proving females are exactly the same as men and even did the same exact things prehistorically. It’s like the British in the 1800’s trying to prove they are the perfect people. Biology proves there are many differences and they manifest physically, for example men are twice as likely to have disabilities than women. History is in the past and there is nothing you can do to change it.

  13. There are many well-known studies showing that women are generally the adopters and teachers of language. Research on farming shows women to generally be the adopters of new skills and techniques (part of the reason why the UN, WFO etc promote family farming). To win out against the creationists commenting on the facebook version of this post scientists must work to remove personal bias from their work. Unacknowledged sexism and racism in scientific research is something that has been proven time and time again. Note I say proven, unlike the ideology in this article that assumes women could never have any part in human achievement.

    1. I agree Women can claim many innovations, I would go as far as saying most of the domestic innovations came from women. But this is something that would be purely outside of the home. I doubt most men even knew how to write. This was a niche ability created for the sole purpose of keeping record, and I highly doubt a women was hired to learn this ability to only use it to make receipts. Especially with the knowledge we have about how women were treated during that time period.

  14. Excuse me but the whole article is wrong! Saying there were kings and stuff generations after that? There is the first known Pharao ( pen abu or more likely hor pen abu) from like 3300 b.c. and it’s only uuptil now. And writing is said to be starting with skorpion 1. Which is only in 3250 aprox. There is still lots to figure out. Sad that the journalist might have read the wrong books. And even more sad that national Geografic published it.

  15. This is a terrible analysis…its is just filled with assumptions and bias. It is pretty damn good example of the blind misogynistic bias, what’s your evidence that men are ‘early adopters’? Very little is known really about early cultures and how gender was seen…you dont even know if those names are Male or Female. To assume that women always took a secondary place in society like they have in more recent western history shows a lazy and biased outlook…this article is terrible you should be ashamed.

    1. You do realize, if your a woman, you probably are living in the best time era for women. Less than 100 years ago (1919), women couldn’t even vote. Are you seriously going to say “Very little is known really about early cultures and how gender was seen”. You are dead wrong, and using your own bias against “white males”( which shouldn’t be a thing btw, if you was truly about equality, you wouldn’t sit there all day shouting, “FEMALES ARE BETTER THAN MEN! WE WANT EQUALITY! “)

      As a male, I shouldn’t be the one having to educate you on female rights(based on your standards), but If you won’t educate yourself to quit spreading YOUR assumption, then I’ll have to educate you.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women's_suffrage_in_the_United_States
      http://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/WIC/Historical-Essays/No-Lady/Womens-Rights/

      Just two to get you started. Throughout history, women have been the ‘Maid, cook, cleaner, stay home housewife, and don’t go out’. Welcome to how life used to work.

      Saying we don’t know women’s rights over time is a blatant lie. Women used to be seen as 100% objects. A man Physically owns the woman.

      “How do you know men were early adopters”, well because throughout the entire of history, men have been in charge of about 80+% of it .

      I will say there ARE outliers in history, where places decided to modernize rather than stick with ideas, but a majority rule supports all my arguments.

  16. I think they missed the mark entirely. Looking at the 30,000 year old hand prints on the cave wall, it’s pretty clear everyone was named “Lefty.”

  17. Girls why you getting upset for ? Go bavk to histoy, sadly 5 thousand years ago women was cooking and being pregnant 60% of her lifetime. Only royalty womens could read or write. Dont get upset l, as i smell feminism here 🙂

  18. What are you women so ass blasted about? Historically, many civilizations, tribes, clans, etc. were patriarchal and men had first picks at new technologies/discoveries. There would be more literate men. Quit your whining, it’s history, not another reason for you to complain. If you had read the article, this isn’t a debate about written language, it’s about the first recorded name. Jesus Christ hop off your high horses and relax

  19. For the love of God, you are writing for National Geographic. Use sources more legit than those called “A Very Short Introduction” and “A Brief History.” I could have read that shit myself. Introducing: JSTOR! It’s searchable!

  20. By Ringo’s translation of Kushim, then maybe the tablet is a record of a trade of two commodities and should read as : one party paid “A total of 29,086 measures of barley” for a constant supply of hashish over “37 months”

  21. Wtf? Male as early adopters?? What is this? Disappointing Nat Geo, clearly you dont even bother to research your articles for sources. Females created the first lunar calender and recorded(which means write down if you are unaware btw) the first story in human history. This shitty article is terrible, I expect this out of buzz feed not an educational site. Get it together, for f***s sake.

  22. Rather than saying men were early adapters, which is a mischaracterization of modern men and not a statement of fact across generations, it might have been more accurate to say that women were largely enslaved and oppressed.

  23. Guys . You forget Kumari continent and their civilization and tamil literature. . I hope they too belong to this world …

  24. “Men are early adopters” uh, WHAT? NO. Women are usually early adopters then men trail in and pretend everything is their idea. Look at who the first computer users and programmers were–it certainly wasn’t men! Just about every technology, especially communication technology, was adopted by women first only for us to be displaced by men later.

    1. back yourself up if your going to make such a claim. Women may have been the first computer USERS because of their roles at the time but it was conceived/created by Charles Babbage and Bill and Steve innovated the first personal computers.But none of that has anything to do with ~5,000 b.c.e. Women’s roles looked nothing like they do today, in fact the entire social structure was different. So when you compare 20th century women to before the first century women your comparing genetically modified oranges to mummified apples.

  25. Well Mr Peter Aps, my reaction was the same! They had these guys even then to keep a track of transactions and I am starting to believe that the Accountant profession is probably the second profession after well you know what…

  26. Must we always attach personal feelings to intellectual discussions? Look at the thousands of years of evidence before you. Females have historically been repressed and opressed. Odds favor that a male name was the first written name even if it was a of a female operating under a psuedoname for fear of retaliation.

  27. Both men and women contributed to civilization, saying one contributed more or than me are better than women or that women are better than men is idiotic and feeds ignorance. At different times in history men were the early adopters and at other times women, it depended on the technology and learning culture at he time. So relax everyone.

  28. Guessing is not the scientific thing, why assuming instead of saying genre to be determined?
    Woman could have as well carried out accounting in ancient times.
    It’s a very interesting article, but support your theories instead of showing the slight sexism.

  29. This article is garbage. From the cheap cartoon illustrations to the unnecessary sexist speculation. Buzzfeed publishes better content than this.

  30. Concur with “trawled” vs. “trolled”. Trolling is putting a hook in the water and waiting for a bite. Trawling is putting a net in the water, then pulling it in and examining what you catch.

  31. Let me assure you all, those women were busy as can be having babies, harvesting said crops, keeping a warm place for their family to lie down in relative safety when night came, teaching the young’uns and putting up with the crap that would have come with living in the times they lived in. However then, as today, they were curious, artistic, smart, creative, cunning, and intelligent..That being said, I am pretty sure they were also accountants, mechanics, farmers, etc and left their marks all over the place..How else could they have communicated with each other and their men who always watched the chariot races on Sunday??

  32. oy veh you people are spoiled. spoiled by the wealth of information that is out there thanks to these people and the work they do. get a life and stop complaining about the “sexism” and “racism” and move on with comments like “nice work” or “interesting” or “this is something I did not know until now”. sheesh

  33. Oh my God, such butthurt. Quit with the incessant whining and just appreciate the history. Otherwise, save it for your Gender Studies course.

  34. Interesting that the women have sources to back up the fact that women in fact, were early adopters if we’re going to be sexist about it.
    And the men just rant and rage and pound their chests about it. How appropriate.

  35. Wanted to share this with my daughters. But don’t feel like having them hear this sexist bull, or having to explain this sexism to them. Thanks for nothing National Geo! Geez!

    1. Good luck explaining the first 1900 years of Christianity to her. They really loved empowering women then. Must be why they burned so many at the stake.

  36. What a waste of research! Even if you don’t believe the Bible is a holy book it IS an accurate historical account. The first mans name was Adam. I’m surprised only one other person has pointed this out.

  37. Re: First Name in History

    It was me but my modesty prevented me from signing my name. My mother was so proud of me when she learned of this sacrifice of mine!

  38. It’s possible that this trade was made with Kush people, not with a person named Kush.

    Kushim could be Hebrew. Adding “im” to a noun makes it plural in Hebew.

    “Kush” was a biblical figure, the father of Nimrod. The Kush people (“Kushim”) descend from Kush. In the past, scholars believed that the Kushim were today’s Ethiopians; today, the thought is that the Kush lived in southern Egypt/ northern Sudan.

  39. I am also intrigued and surprised at the integrity of this article. While the question is compelling, ‘whose name was first written in history?’, the faulty references and broad, generalized statements leave me disappointed in the author and National Geographic. I am by no means a feminist, but to state that men are the first adopters of technology is such a sad, closed minded, western male perspective. There are quite a few other cultures than us white people, hate to break it to some of you out there. Women were (and still are) in some cultures suppressed, while in others, were (and still are) treated as equal and therefore were no bit behind in adopting ‘new things’. Granted, dear old Robert did use the word ‘usually’, but I think he could’ve left that ignorant statement and oh so avant garde cartoon out and none of us would’ve complained. But then, Robert wouldn’t have gotten all of these wonderful comments would he? Any press is good press.

  40. These genius scientists expect us to believe that ancient man built the marvel known as Gobekli Tepe in 10,000 BC BUT WERE TOO STUPID TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO WRITE WHAT THEY WERE SAYING FOR ANOTHER 5,000 YEARS.

    Either Gobekli Tepe is one massive hoax or modern science is full of crap with a lot of their dates and assumptions.

  41. Interesting read!

    On another front: R.E.L.A.X! No one is attempting to undermine the female gender (oops, sorry, sex) with an article about who was first known to history. Did feminist-outrage.com steer you all here? It’s a statement, somewhat speculative, but fairly likely given what we know of history.

    STOP BEING OFFENDED BY EVERYTHING!

  42. The shaky bit here, by my thinking, is not that ancient men commenced calling each other by name some 5000 years ago; it’s the assumption that they could understand the concept of a number as large as 29,086 back then. That does not jibe with other things I have read about primitive civilizations, which was that when they ran out of fingers and toes to count, the next number was “many.”

  43. Did some people read this entire piece or just jump to blast the author as soon as they hit the Male “early adopter” image?

    Researchers/scientists make assumptions based on historical evidence all the time. A problem develops when a person doing any kind of research tries to fit all the evidence to suit the initial assumption. That’s not what was done here.

    He also assumed the first name wouldn’t have been someone poor. Does that make him anti-poor or pro-King? His reasoning for the assumptions are sound. They are based on the historic knowledge of what society was like in that area of the world at this period of time. This wasn’t 2015. Women were mostly viewed as second class citizens and property in this area of the world. That’s not an anti-woman statement. That’s just a statement of historical facts. Statement of facts are not an endorsement of the them.

    It’s not outrageous to suggest that, at the time, it wasn’t very likely that a female or a poor person in the Middle East would be the first recorded name in the region. Also, because of the societal structure, it is unlikely that a woman would be central to a writing revolution. Is it impossible? No. Is it historically likely? No.

  44. Well, it looks like making an educated stab at a very interesting point is morally reprehensible, you bad person, you! Keep the chin up. If these reprobates could write similar blogs they’d fail.

  45. “Men are early adopters” is a somewhat rash assumption, so that you’re ashamed of it is well deserved. However, it’s worth noting that women’s rights have an atrocious record especially in early history, so a man being more likely to be found in the “content” of writing (whether the scribe is a woman or a man) early on is a reasonable assumption.

    Of course though, I’m not sure where the “white” thing in your ashamed spiel comes from, since the part of the world we’re looking at here is Middle Eastern, the person in the earliest records we find likely won’t be white.

    That being said, your other assumptions were sound if the earliest record happened to be a history or biography. There’s so much else it could be though, such as a financial record, hence the results not lining up with your prediction.

  46. Great question, but hack article. Women likely were early adopters Of many things for which there is no written record. Bread ? Pottery ? Fire ?
    And I am offended, because this kind of simple generalization can perpetrate ignorance.

  47. Thanks for the link to my own website [http://benbeck.co.uk/human/individuality.htm], in which I don’t mention Kushim. You had me worried for a while, but I think I will stand by my own version.
    My issues with your claim for Kushim are as follows:
    1) you cite Harari’s Sapiens, and it’s true that Harari speculates that ‘If Kushim was indeed a person, he may be the first individual in history whose name is known to us!” But Harari dates the tablet to “c.3400–3000BC”, which means that if it stems from the later end of this range it would surely be later than the names of Iry-Hor, Gal-Sal, Enpap-X and Sukkalgir, whom I mention.
    2) Additionally, Harari’s source, for which the specific URL is http://www.schoyencollection.com/24-smaller-collections/wine-beer/ms-1717-beer-inanna-uruk, clearly dates the tablet as 31st c. BC, which supports this point.
    3) Finally, the embedded video dates the table to around 2600 BC, which makes it even later.
    All that said, I do take Pat O’s point, and am sure that you and I both mean the earliest recorded name found so far.

  48. The argument made for the first name being a man is flimsy even if the assumption about males being early adopters is true.

    Because when people write things, they don’t just write their own names. They can just as easily write down the names of other people, and those could just as easily be the names of women as of men.

    What if the earliest writing sample later to be discovered goes something like this…

    “Dear Juliette…. (various stuff) …signed (name unreadable)”?

  49. (Firstly, the blog of Curious Krulwich is NG’s gain, and NPR’s loss!)

    To figure it out, imagine the dialogue… The first person to have a name was someone who had to be differentiated. “The guy – you know, THE guy…” “Which one?” “THAT guy… that GUY…you know the one?”
    So, maybe a larger group than a small family unit, since you’re referring to the person in a way that means they don’t share your knowledge of the person. So there’s some anonymity is this group.
    Not such a stranger that he stood out, however: “Did you see that GUY?!!” “Yup. I sure did. Talked funny.” Not a king – everyone knows who the boss is, and when he’s around. But someone necessary, though, not just another peon. (This is why I’m not using the female gender… sadly, any former secretary can tell you that anyone other than matriarch or the wife is often seen as interchangeable.)
    Of course, the first person to be named wasn’t always around – otherwise you’d just point at him. “Hey, YOU! Yeah, you there. You go first”. But still someone that was interesting enough that people would talk about him when he wasn’t there. I think the first name was actually a nickname: “Hey, you know, that guy said that method doesn’t work” “Which guy? Who says it won’t work?” “One-Eye” “Well, I guess HE would know.”

    (Lastly, the folks in the photo weren’t “Lefty”, since they used their right hand to wrangle the paint!)

  50. Geeze, why are all of these people DO UPSET about such a small little mistake? xD it doesn’t matter what their gender was, all that matters is that they finally have a name, that early men made a huge advancement in humanity that would help them differentiate between each other. But fine, go ahead and complain about gender like it was the most important thing C:

  51. 100 years ago, women in America weren’t even allowed to vote… it’s not a wild leap of faith to assume that they probably weren’t even ALLOWED to write while men were, considering this was more than 6000 years ago.

  52. This barley is thought to have been destined for beer due to the later 17 examples where “kushim” is mentioned. Brewing is known to have been done by women in great numbers in ancient Mesopotamia, as in many civilisations. I know a few alewives. The Sumerian “Hymn to Ninkasi” features the goddess of brewing of that name.

    Most scholars are careful to state that the exact nature of “kushim” and its actual pronunciation are unknown. The reading of the signs as “kushim” comes from at least a thousand years after these tablets were made. It could be an institution, a title, a storehouse, a person or something not yet considered.

    In my own opinion the sign “ku” looks very like a tally stick and the sign “shim” looks very like a storage jar (complete with wedge to keep it upright). Hence it is likely to have meant “tallyman” or “tallywoman”.

    The ancient hand silhouettes in caves are generally thought to have been spat with a mixture of pigments and water not blown as dust.

    The cartoon illustrations are certainly a strange colour for Mesopotamians.

    Overall mark for the essay: D-

  53. I swore I wouldn’t listen to or read anything more by Robert Krulwich after I heard an episode of Radiolab where berated the daughter of an SE Asian massacre victim, basically calling her a liar on the air, until she cried and left in protest. I was disgusted. So was America. He later apologized on the air.

    I won’t click through ever again.

    As to this dreck, whenever I see him steering in the direction of something he thinks is strange or counterintuitive I know the answer is going to be something that’s obvious to me… Knowing the little that i do about ancient history, I considered the first recorded name (found so far) to be as likely a goddess as a god, a queen as a king or just as likely the scribe who signed the papyrus or clay.

    I can’t attest to the skin color issue but the hair is off: the Sumerians were called “black heads” for their blue black shaved pates. They certainly weren’t auburn!

    Women were early adopters of techniques that bridged “gatherers” and what we now call agriculture (planting annual tubers for harvest the following tribal hunting cycle), beer brewing, weaving, rope making etc.

    I can’t believe this sexist idiot gets paid to write this.

  54. I was going to say, Adam. But not from a religious point of view. I see that a few others have beat me to it, however those individuals seem quite sure of the bible as an errorless and divine source.

    I may also offend a number of people here. But my point of view is this: Even if the bible is not holy scripture, even if it has no sanctity whatsoever (and I believe it doesn’t), it could still be a fairly accurate chronicle of Hebrew royalty. In fact, that’s exactly what most biblical scholars believe today. Adam (and Eve) may not have been (certainly weren’t) the very first humans on earth, but they could very well have been the earliest Hebrews known and recorded in the Hebrew written record.

    If so, and if Archbishop James Ussher is correct (along with such notable figures as Johannes Kepler and Sir Isaac Newton) then Adam would have lived around 3992-4004 BCE.

    But we might be able to go back ever further by a few thousand years! One of the oldest known continuously occupied settlements in the world is Jericho. Archaeologists have unearthed artifacts from Jericho that are dated 11,000 years old (9,000 BCE). If (and this is a BIG if) the city’s name, “Jericho” is also that old, and if settlements, kingdoms and territories were named for kings (and back then they were), then perhaps “Jericho” is the oldest known person’s name.

  55. Interesting article Mr. Krulwich. Of course it’s not 100%, but you say unless we lived ancient history, all we can do is speculate (and write thought provoking articles.)

  56. While reading the article, the possible options of 1st recorded names being either male or in title of occupation, and the depictions (being seeming white) did not even occur to me. Maybe I’m just colored blind and don’t get my panties in a twist about whether it could have been male/female or light skinned/brown skinned (although the latter tends to makes more sense). Actually, my first thought was Adam.

  57. While reading the article, the possible options of 1st recorded names being either male or in title of occupation, and the depictions (being seemingly white) did not even occur to me. Maybe I’m just colored blind and don’t get my panties in a twist about whether it could have been male/female or light skinned/brown skinned (although the latter tends to makes more sense). Actually, my first thought was Adam.

  58. Yes, I am rather stunned that you said this: “Would it be a she or a he? (I’m figuring a he, because writing was a new thing, and males are usually the early adopters.)” You may think it was a harmless thing to say, but it is exactly the kind of attitude that breeds low self-esteem in young girls. Unless you have rock-solid evidence that this is true, and that the evidence applies directly to the situation you’re writing about, then you should not have said it. It was unethical AND unscientific!

  59. How very little it takes to send people off the deep end! Don’t they realize that most of the so-called ‘science’ of just a hundred years ago today is widely regarded as ‘old wives tales’? And what about a hundred years from now? Even Albert Einstein was erroneous in many of his thoughts and suppositions about the universe, or so it is said. Mankind still stumbles forward and will continue to do so.

  60. When I was reading Harari’s book, Sapiens, I had a hard time figuring out how the symbols on the Kushim tablet could represent the number 29,086. So I dug deeper following the references at the end of the book. I found out that the number should have been 28,086 (9000×3+900+30×6+5+1).
    Details…details…

  61. Well I’m a woman and I can agree that it was almost certainly a male. Women – to this day – are fighting to receive an education. We weren’t even allowed to read and write in some parts of the world. We weren’t allowed to vote or do anything but bear children and housekeeping. History has shown that most of the world’s “firsts” we’re men. Doesn’t mean it’s right, or that it has to remain that way – it’s just the reality.

  62. Society is plastic, changeable, it can be what we want it to be. People of all genders, races and biotypes can play any role as good as their human peers. These things do not need legitimization of nature , history – or History, Archaeology, Biology, etc. That being said, still, people uses it frequently as a discourse. Religious and traditional people uses it a lot, to say something is natural is done to support dogmatic thinking, but people affected by tradition uses it also (mainly to deal with that traditional people). For example, many gay people still argue that their same-sex attraction is orientation, rather than choice, passing a false and unnecessary message that if homosexuality were choice, it would be wrong.

    I would say, as a friend, not a would-be patron, to feminists and black activists, to not worry about what any – and mostly a white guy – speaks about the past (especially since “science” has always had this gentlemen’s club thing), or at least have a likely white guy discourse ahead to not be vexed or disappointed. Well i’m not naive, of course discourses matters in the social world too much – even in the science world, for the great part of it that is influenced by society biases. It matters for your (and/or of all of us, concerned people) struggle and you should keep going, yes. But this does not would have power to affect your personal convictions or simply the truth, which i started talking about and you all should know well. Specially the text above statements – in words and pictures, so wrong in so many ways, both scientific and normatively speaking! – although i do not disregard parts of real information i’m taking from it.

  63. I agree that few ancient societies should have been as gender-egalitarian as our own western contemporary societies, but many ​​subaltern classes were responsible for many important innovations in history, i don’t see why with women in writing this would’nt have been different.

  64. This comment section is hilarious. The point of the author’s entire introduction was to show how backwards his hunch was. It was literally a stab in the dark based on what he’s been taught, which he goes on to willfully demonstrate isn’t much on this subject, once we’re given the actual answers by the researcher. And instead of a friendly discourse challenging some of his assumptions, I just read a novella of slander and verbal assault delivered by a bunch of people who frankly don’t deserve to be taken seriously.

    The commenter above me gets it. Women have been oppressed throughout history. It’s logical to assume a man would have been the first recorded name we knew about on those grounds alone. That isn’t difficult to piece together. And how that runs counter to the feminist narrative is beyond me.

    Let’s try to learn together rather than attacking one another. People can have disagreements and point things out to one another in a civil way without reaching for their pitchforks every time. I’d like to think a site like Nat Geo attracted more intelligent men and women than what I’m seeing in these comments. Maybe they’re all smart enough to remain silent.

  65. Interesting read!! Idk how I would feel being remembered for the first person to put their name on a receipt. I wonder if it was a successful transaction or if the only reason we found it was because it had to be produced as evidence.

    It’s only a small window into the past, but you can almost imagine life back then.

  66. What is this all about? Isn’t the first humans name like a world known fact? It was Adam. That’s not even a best guess or hypothesis, it is a known fact, and word of god.

  67. Wow, amazing how many whining, offended bigots have felt compelled to comment about “whining, offended feminists.” Even more amazing is the assumption that women never held positions of power in history. Many anthropologists actually believe that the first human societies were matriarchal. In Europe, these matriarchal societies were gradually conquered by patriarchal horsemen from the Eastern Europe and Russian steppes, their deities symbolically wedding the existing goddesses in an attempt at unification.
    The notion that the names of figures in ancient myths may represent actual people, presumably rulers, is certainly not a new one. If one chooses to assume as much, then the gods and goddesses of the Sumerians clearly predate the comparatively recent Hebrew Adam, which would also potentially mean that Noah predates Adam too, seeing as he is based upon the Sumerian legend of Utnapishtim from the Epic of Gilgamesh.
    No doubt more names will emerge in the fullness of time, but it looks like there are some issues with Kushim, and that the name may be more of a title. However, how may people today have the last names of Smith, Tailor, or Weaver, which are also job descriptions?
    Despite assumptions and some poorly worded sentences, the question, and the potential answers, remain quite intriguing.

  68. “I’m figuring a he, because writing was a new thing, and males are usually the early adopters.”

    The problem with this isn’t political, it’s just bad science and worse scholarship. If you’d said, “I figure guys are the first ones …” that’d be one thing. But on a blog that deals with issues semi-scientific, at least, it’s just not supportable and research argues against it.

    In groups of social primates, it’s very often young females who are the innovators. The “try something new” ones. Their discoveries are picked up by young males, spread to older females and the adult males are the last to embrace anything new. I’m thinking specifically of some observations of Japanese macaques, if memory serves.

    It’s fine with me that you post opinions, I’d just prefer they not be couched in the form of categorical truths. Certainly this question can be debated with other kinds of research supporting a different conclusion.

    And, I do know this is an old post. But I found it in late 2017, so I imagine others will, also.

    Otherwise, nice job.

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