The History of Data Storage and Backup Part Two: Tablets, Patterns, and Paper

Casey Morgan
February 11, 2013
Journal Entry

Author’s note: This article is part two of The History of Data Storage and Backup. Read part one here.

Early human evolution was complicated. Various developments occurred in different parts of the world at different times and in different societies.

Last time we introduced data, information storage, and backup by exploring methods primitive humans would have used to record information. This time, we’ll look at the unified evolution of technology and humans, and examine the way that biological and technical marriage enriched the methods humans used to record and restore information throughout early history.

You’ll recall that the driving factor in advancing knowledge was the need to understand and record patterns, which was assisted by the unity of human and technological evolution.

Patterns are extremely important when it comes to existence. Patterns are how humans and animals learn. Patterns and learning allow life to flourish—even your genetic material is composed of patterns of the four basic ingredients A, G, C, and T inside of your DNA. Without data and its various patterns, life cannot exist.

Humans began to recognize and record patterns and utilized their records to share the information with others on cave walls, but looking back a little earlier in history, humans developed another communication pattern that would influence written forms of communication: human speech.

Researchers speculate that a symbolic language (sounds associated with meanings) was first used by Homo Habilis about 2.5 million years ago. There are many theories, but this early language probably consisted of primitive grunts. Although this form of communication developed many years before the earliest recorded cave paintings or tally sticks, speech—along with reading and writing— influenced the development of various forms of information recording, storage, processing, and recovery.

As humans progressed, patterns and thoughts became more complex and the tree of knowledge grew along with humanity’s need for practical systems to organize information—a practice we’re still perfecting today. Humans eventually advanced the simple deer and buffalo images found on cave walls into Sumerian cuneiform, writing composed of a system of pictographs, written on the earliest known medium for writing: clay tablets.

Things that were written on these fragile clay tablets were generally in forms of writing that we understand very little of today. Early tablets bearing symbols are very rare, possibly owing to the fact that the earliest clay tablets were never fire-hardened and were merely left in the sun to dry. This allowed the user to submerge the tablet in water to erase the symbols and start again fresh—a procedure that would quickly ruin a modern tablet.

The first of Sumerian tablets are dated around 2,900 years ago (YA), many years following the origins of pottery in Far East Asia around 19,000 YA, but the earliest known tablets are the Tărtăria tablets, dated around 5,500 BCE. Archaeologists speculate that these tablets contain a form of writing even earlier than that of Sumerian cuneiform called Vinča symbols, which are sometimes considered the earliest form of proto-writing.  Note that writing systems are generally distinguished from things like cave paintings and proto-writing in that they require at least one associated spoken language.

This was an interesting era in time because several different methods for writing began to develop in different parts of the world at nearly the same time and there is little we can do but wonder which early form of writing was actually first, but the development of writing is considered the point at which pre-history becomes history. And, interestingly enough, the fact that similar technologies advanced in isolated societies seems to suggest that technological advancement is a natural part of human evolution, and  backup and recovery is part of it.

Since these early eras left us little that we can actually understand, archaeologists must learn about early societies based on the archaeological remains alone. As we saw with DNA, there’s information stored inside organic matter as well. Anything that dies leaves enough information backed up in its molecules for researchers to determine its age through the awesome data recovery process called radiocarbon dating. Researchers use radiocarbon dating to determine the age of things like the earliest clay tablets and the Ishango bone.

Media for writing continued to develop from clay tablets to wooden tablets, to papyrus scrolls, to wooden and paper codices—which are considered the very first books (manuscripts and even modern books are technically codices). Codices were developed through the need to have more and more information consolidated in one location, but also filled the need for people to randomly access information inside—much the way we randomly access information on a modern hard drive (this is probably why even call it “reading” and “writing” data to hard drives). The word codex comes from the Latin caudex meaning “trunk of a tree” and codices serve as such: the book itself is like the trunk and the various sections and chapters are like the branches.

In the early stages of writing, all of these mediums for data storage faced the same issue—there was generally only one copy. These works had to be created by hand and were written on early forms of paper scrolls and codices that were very fragile.

As more writing was produced, the need to store the various codices and scrolls increased until humans developed the first data center: the library. Tablets were kept in the earliest known library in Ebla (modern Syria), and many scrolls were kept in the largest and most significant ancient library, the Egyptian Library of Alexandria. As both of these archives show, libraries have a long history of burning down—Ebla was destroyed around 2250 BCE and, according to Greek Historian Plutarch, the Library of Alexandria was burned in a fire started by Julius Caesar in the Alexandrian War in 48 BCE, though there are a few theories surrounding its destruction.

Writers would’ve learned very quickly that having only one copy meant their work was extremely vulnerable. Given site destroying events like those that took the libraries of Elba and Alexandria, they likely realized the importance of having not just one extra copy on site, but keeping a copy at a disparate site as well—these are likely the first instances in which people realized the need for an archaic type of backup and disaster recovery plan.

No copies meant that months of work could be irrecoverably destroyed in minutes. Books were extremely fragile and something so small as dropping the sole copy of a manuscript in a puddle would likely ruin the work and get an unlucky apprentice thrown out on the street. Attempting to recover the information from the book probably meant that with some luck, a few pages would survive. While large site-destroying events did happen, it’s likely that in those days, just as now, user error was the greatest cause of data or information loss.

Luckily, in time, early book producers developed new ways to copy the content from their manuscripts to ensure they could be passed on into the future; these methods allowed one of the world’s best-selling and widely distributed book of all time to make it into the modern era and also allowed the masses to learn and develop in ways previously only available to the aristocratic elite.

We continue our look at the history of data storage and backup in part three: patterns and print.