The Secret History of Identity
Before the Written Word, the Human Hand Marked Our Place
Immersed as we are in a never-ending stream of articles, tweets, posts, emails and advertisements, most modern humans would find it difficult (if not impossible) to imagine a world with no writing, where knowledge and history are transmitted exclusively through speech. But for tens of thousands of years, before the advent of writing in the cities of the ancient Sumerians, that’s how people lived. While prehistoric people didn’t set down histories on tablets or monuments, they did leave a record of themselves — their art and artifacts.
While a lot about our way of life has changed dramatically, some things have remained the same throughout the millennia. The desire to make places our own, the desire to make things beautiful and the desire to be remembered are among them. The cave paintings of prehistoric peoples around the world are ample evidence of these commonalities. Some of the earliest paintings — dating as far back as 40,000 years ago1 — are human hands stenciled in red, brown and ochre pigments. These hands appear in caves from Europe to Indonesia.
These cave paintings typically feature multiple handprints, the outlines of which show subtle differences. Recent research on significant gender differences between finger lengths indicate that the artists were likely predominately female, about three quarters.2 Whether these men and women thought that their hands were unique representations of themselves or not, it’s clear that the image of a hand was one way they could mark their place and create something beautiful and lasting.
In Sumer, a group of city-states in what is now Iraq, the first ever instance of writing appeared in about 3200 BC.3 Initially a way to keep track of goods, this ancient script was versatile enough to become widely used for many other purposes. Called cuneiform, it was composed of intricate combinations of lines pressed into soft clay tablets with a stylus and then hardened in the sun. While this might seem impractical, Sumerians and other Mesopotamians did all of their writing this way. In fact, many of the ancient cuneiform tablets at the British Museum are scribal schoolwork, ranging from math practice to short essays. What these people wrote provides a window into their lives — but what they didn’t write is also worth examining.
Because the vast majority of people in ancient societies were unable to read or write, it was important to have some way to signify identity on documents without requiring literacy from the signer.
Enter the fingerprint.
There is evidence of deliberate fingerprinting on clay seals dating from around 2600-2350 BC, and there is evidence of ancient Babylonians affixing fingerprints to contracts around 1900 BC.4 The ancient Mesopotamians might not have known that every fingerprint was unique, but they were obviously able to capitalize on the fact that they were fundamentally different enough from each other to be useful. The fingerprint-as-signature isn’t a 21st century innovation — it’s as old as society itself.
The Chinese came to use biometrics to the fullest potential of any people in the ancient world. While the modern world lays claim to a scientific approach to biometrics, evidence shows that the Chinese were taking it seriously over 2,000 years earlier.
Since Ancient China also had a predominately illiterate population, biometrics was a useful way to manage a large populace and maintain law and order. The ancient Chinese strategy was not so different from India’s biometric push today. During the Qin and Han Dynasties and the Six Dynasties period (from circa 206 BC to 589 CE) fingerprints were being used as an identifier in all sorts of situations, and on a variety of mediums.4 Important documents in the Qin Dynasty would often be kept secure using a clay seal with a monogram on one side and a fingerprint on the other. Writing found on bamboo slips (another writing medium for the early Chinese) recounts that fingerprints were used in crime scene investigations during that time as well.
During this period, fingerprints, handprints, footprints and body measurements were commonly recorded on paper or silk.4 A combination of a fingerprint and these measurements would be used on official documents of all kinds, including engagements, divorces, deeds, records of indenture and even army records. They would also have been used as evidence or as a signature affixed to a formal confession. That’s remarkably similar to how they’re used in today’s legal system.
When biometrics emerges as access control or verification in new use cases today, people tend to react as if it’s entirely a modern invention, another sign of the encroachment of technology on daily life. The reality is, that from thumbprint signatures in clay many thousands of years ago to footprints on silk in the 6th century, the ancients understood that minute differences between people could create unique personas — and used that fact to great effect.
1 Marchant, Jo. “Journey to the Oldest Cave Paintings in the World.” Smithsonian Magazine.
2 Hughes, Virginia. “Were the First Artists Mostly Women?” National Geographic.
3 Mark, Joshua. “Writing – Definition.” Ancient.eu.
4 Daluz, Hillary Moses. Fundamentals of Fingerprint Analysis. Boca Raton: CRC Press. 2014.