All about the world’s oldest profession

I thought I’d better post something about the world’s oldest profession, the one that a lot of people use today – and it’s a profession older, even, than writing. It’s one that seems to be an essential part of human nature. And these days it’s become an integral part of modern life. I’m talking, of course, about accountancy.

Let me explain. As far as is known, the first writing system was devised by the Sumerians, around 5,500 years ago, specifically so they could account for transactions such as sale of wheat. It was par for the course in this city-state where – unlike older hunter-gatherer societies – people didn’t necessarily know each other; but where exchanges were taking place on a significant scale and across significant time. And, humans being humans, they wanted value for what was being exchanged. Writing – specifically, making marks in clay tablets with a stylus – offered a way of quantifying that value, and confirming the exchange.

A cuneform tablet. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

It was one of the first major developments of the period, and – reasonably – that makes accountancy the oldest profession. I expect it was as boring then as it is today. You can imagine the chit-chat in some Sumerian market square:

Silik-Mukuki: Hello Abu-Ishar.
Abu Ishar: Hello Silik-Muluki.
Silik-Mukuki: Lovely morning.
Abu-Ishar: Lovely morning.
Silik-Mukuki: Tell me, has your stylus been giving trouble?
Abu-Ishar: That’s a bit personal if you ask me.
Silik-Mukuki: No, your stylus. For writing.
Abu-Ishar: Oh. Ha ha [both laugh]. No.
Silik-Mukuki: Mine has. I broke the tip off it yesterday trying to exactly enumerate the sale of thirty three and one third small camel-thorns by Nin-Girsu to Sin-Baladan. It was most annoying. Not the whole tip. Just the slightly pointed end of it, which I’d spent a lot of time whittling not three days ago, and you know how long that takes, and then of course I couldn’t write down the number of spokes in the wheel of that cart which went past a bit before, and I can’t help thinking that I will never manage to count the number of spokes of every cart in Sumeria, just for a hobby between jobs you understand, but of course one has to be precise. Then there was the problem of precipitation last night –
Abu-Ishar: What precipitation? It hasn’t rained for exactly 233 and one half days, and the rain gauge has been most disappointing. Most disappointing. Almost made me lose interest in them. You interested in rain gauges, Silik-Mukuki?
Silik-Mukuki: No no, much too exciting for me. No, I’ll just stick to counting cart wheel spokes, thanks. Oh look, there’s one there. Wait a moment… one, two, three… oh well, next time. But as I was saying, there was the problem of precipitation last night where it was supposed to happen but actually didn’t, and of course then I found I’d dropped a small piece of cloth just where I couldn’t pick it up, and I couldn’t help thinking that this was the sort of thing that always happens, which I suppose is what makes life interesting, and – oh wait, another cart…[etc etc]

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020

6 thoughts on “All about the world’s oldest profession

  1. I would, in sincerity, read a book that was all about the history of accounting and how it’s influenced culture. But who would write such a thing, let alone publish it, knowing that I would be about one-fifth the total audience?

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  2. I’m atrocious at maths, so this was never going to be my career. I did just buy a book called Who Ate The First Oyster? By Cody Cassidy. Should be interesting for lots of historical firsts and records like oldest profession. “Who drank the first beer?” Is one topic. Oliver Reed, probably.

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  3. I loved your story. It was delightfully funny! After reading some of the comments I decided to look up who drank the first beer and the history of accounting. Not so sure about the lion taming. Oddball facts are so fascinating! 🙂

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