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Forerunners of Paper

Before the invention of paper, various cultures used many different materials as media to record written information. Stone, metal, wood, papyrus, clay, parchment, vellum, cloth, tree leaves, bark, and rice-pith "paper" have all filled this role at one time or another.

Clay Tablets

The Sumerians, who inhabited southern Mesopotamia and Chaldaea, first developed cuneiform writing in the form of pictographs around 4000 B.C. Since clay was readily available in the region, it was used as the writing surface. By around 3000 B.C., the pictograms had evolved into wedge-shaped characters that were drawn with the edge of a stylus.

Bark and Beaten Bark

Many cultures have adapted tree bark for record-keeping use in one way or another. In the Himalayan region and in the Americas, sheets and rolls of bark have been used. In many Pacific cultures, "bark cloth" is made by beating moistened sections of bark with a serrated beater. Sections of this bark cloth are joined with vegetable adhesives and gums to produce sheets of considerable size, such as the 19th-century example from Tonga shown at right.

Bark cloth
  The Batak people of Indonesia recorded information on genealogy, religion, divination, and magic on long strips of bark, some as long as thirty feet, which were folded accordion-style and bound between wooden covers. The book in this photograph contains two texts on divination, one on each side of the bark.

Leaves and Leaf Books

Tree leaves were used as a writing material in India and Southeast Asia to record Buddhist scriptures, law, biographical information, and Sanskrit literature. The leaves of the bai-lan tree (similar to palm leaves) were trimmed, flattened, and polished smooth with sand. Characters were scratched on the surface and colored in with a black, sooty pigment. To finish the book, holes were drilled in the leaves, and the stack was bound together on a cord or rod between wooden covers. Even after paper was introduced into Tibet, Tibetan paper manuscripts still retained the elongated, narrow look of the palm-leaf book.

Rice-Pith "Paper"

Rice-pith paper is cut spirally from the inner pith of the kung-shu or Fatsiapapyrifera plant. The Chinese have traditionally used it as a medium for painting, as this photograph demonstrates. Brought to England and New England by 19th-century sailors, it so closely resembled real paper that it was erroneously called "rice paper".

Rice-pith paper


Papyrus has played an important role in history. The oldest written papyrus rolls date back 5000 years, and the word "paper" itself is derived from the Greek and Latin words for papyrus. The abundance and utility of papyrus on the lower Nile made it an important symbol in Egyptian architecture and religion, and the availability of papyrus sheets for recording information was an important asset to Egyptian rulers. Without papyrus, the course of Mediterranean history and literature would have been vastly different.

To make a sheet suitable for writing, the smooth, triangular stalks of the plant were harvested and peeled, and the pith was sliced and pounded together in strips. A second layer of pith was then applied perpendicular to the first and pounded to make a flat sheet, which was then polished smooth with a stone, bone, or shell.

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Institute of Paper Science and Technology at Georgia Tech - Atlanta, Georgia
Last updated - June 13, 2006