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The History of Documents

We deal a lot in documents. So we figured we’d take a look at the history of the paper document.

Long before Gutenberg perfected his famous press, humans were communicating with paper missives. Here’s a look at the absolute oldest:

The world’s oldest known document is a topic for discussion and debate, but one popular answer is a tiny clay fragment discovered outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls dating from the 14th century B.C.E. (We know, not paper, but 14th century? That’s incredible.) Written in cuneiform (what’s that, you ask?), the tablet contains the words ‘you’, ‘you were’, ‘later’, ‘to do’ and ‘them.’ Hardly fit for the contents of a C-level memo, and we’re not sure it would fit through one of our scanners.

The fibrous pulp of the papyrus plant was used to write on in the Nile Delta of Egypt. The oldest known papyrus document is also a topic of debate, but by far the most interesting of the ancient papyrus docs is the Ebers Papyrus, which outlines how to treat disease… with magic and potions. Turns out, “half an onion and the froth of beer” was considered “a delightful remedy against death.” Just be sure to brush your teeth afterward.

The oldest known paper document is actually a map dating from 179-41 B.C.E. Found in Gangmatan in the Gansu province of China. Before that, documents were written on bone or bamboo and were extremely awkward to transport.

Bonus fact: The Chinese were the inventors of “paper” as we know it today. The first sheet was said to be made of “mulberry and other fibres along with fishnets, old rags and hemp waste.” Hardly the clean white, 7 mil printer paper we see today.

The world’s oldest literature is widely accepted to be the Sumerian “Instructions of Shuruppak”, which dates to somewhere around 2600 B.C.E. But the title of “most famous literature from circa 2000 B.C.E.” belongs to a story that comes from ancient Mesopotamia: The Epic of Gilgamesh. It’s still taught in college courses today. That’s staying power.

The world’s most famous document is open to interpretation. But we think the Magna Carta, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Declaration of Independence are worthy contenders for a famous doc slugfest. Thoughts?

We, of course, are in the business of digitizing paper. We want it scanned and tucked safely away in a quality document management system [link]. After that, you can do whatever you want with it. (We recommend shredding.) Or, you can use it to take part in another ancient custom: Origami. Click here for a handy guide.