Academic journal article Accounting Historians Journal

Ancient Mesopotamian Accounting and Human Cognitive Evolution

Academic journal article Accounting Historians Journal

Ancient Mesopotamian Accounting and Human Cognitive Evolution

Article excerpt

Abstract: Recent archaeological evidence supports the claim that the first system of writing and the first use of abstract numerical representation evolved from the clay token accounting system of ancient Mesopotamia. Writing and other abstract symbol systems have subsequently transformed human cognitive capacities within only few millennia, a time period too short for any substantial changes in our biologically-evolved brains. This paper uses Merlin Donald's theory of human cognitive and cultural evolution [in Origins of the Modern Mind; 1991] to identify the role played by ancient accounting in these evolutionary processes. Specifically, it is argued that this early accounting system paved the way for writing by instigating revolutionary cognitive structures for processing visual/symbolic artifacts and establishing a primitive but very powerful form of external memory (external to the brain). The paper also explores the role that accounting systems continue to play in the provision of "cognitive scaffolding" with respect to our organizational and institutional environments, and provides a cursory overview of the pioneering developments of ancient Mesopotamian accounting in this regard.

INTRODUCTION

Thanks to the work of the archeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat [1978; 1986a; 1986b; 1992], an ancient accounting system developed by the Sumerians of Mesopotamia some 10,000 years ago has been attracting a remarkable amount of attention. The reason for the attention is her claim (backed by extensive evidence) that both the first known writing system and the first known use of abstract numbers were direct outgrowths of that ancient token accounting system. (1) This role of ancient accounting has thus been highlighted in many of the recent works examining the history of human cultures and the evolution of the modern human mind, including the Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond [1999].

Schmandt-Besserat's work has not gone unnoticed by accounting historians. Parker [1990] provided a brief but succinct overview of Schmandt-Besserat's findings, and Vollmers [2003] has discussed Mesopotamian accounting in the context of ancient accounting historiography. But Mattessich is the accounting scholar who has written most extensively in this area. Mattessich [1987] for instance, has argued that Schmandt-Besserat's research sheds important light on "the problem of representation". Specifically, he argues that it provides "evidence for the usefulness of the correspondence theory of representation" [p. 83] that was at the center of Wittgenstein's early work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus [1922]. Mattessich also argues that "those ancient people of the Middle East had record keeping systems, the basic logical structure of which was virtually identical with that of modern double entry" [1987, p. 80]. Related arguments about ancient Mesopotamian accounting being a precursor to contemporary accounting methods and practices is further elaborated in a series of other works by Mattessich [1989; 1994; 1998; 2000]. A radically different perspective on the implications of ancient token accounting is explored by Ezzamel and Hoskin [2002]. Whereas Mattessich tends to view accounting as a tool for representing pre-existing values and improving the efficiency of economic activities, Ezzamel and Hoskin use the post-structural perspectives of Foucault and Derrida to demonstrate how the early token accounting system promoted new forms of valuing, new economic practices, and new power and knowledge relationships.

The present paper examines the significance of the ancient token accounting system from vet another perspective, the perspective of human cognitive evolution. Specifically, it uses Merlin Donald's [1991] book, Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition, to identify the crucial role played by the token accounting system in altering cognitive structures and transforming human cognitive capabilities. …

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