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Origins of Historical Writing

In preliterate societies, the accounts of the past are related orally, and many cultures have produced intricate and sophisticated oral histories. African peoples have long relied on oral histories to learn about their past. Starting with the medieval Islamic kingdoms of Africa some of these oral chronicles were recorded in Arabic, and sub-Saharan Africa developed its own written histories. In the 1550s the Popol Vuh, an elaborate account of the history and mythology of the Quiché people in Mexico, was recorded in Spanish.

In the older civilizations, as in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China, historical records appear immediately after the appearance of writing, for conquering kings wished to record their triumphs for all posterity. There was also some interest in the remote past, particularly genealogical interest in the glorification of royal ancestors and their achievements. There appears early, too, a strain of religious interest in showing the lessons of history, religious and ethical. Thus the early historical sections of the Bible are concerned with the manifestation of God's will in the events of human existence, while they show the same genealogical interests as the king lists of other peoples.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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