Who’s the first person in history whose name we know? A king? A warrior? Maybe a famous scholar?
Nope, none of those. It’s an accountant named Kushim.
A fascinating article in National Geographic speaks of “a 5,000-year-old clay tablet found in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). It has dots, brackets, and little drawings carved on it and appears to record a business deal”.
The tablet seems to be a receipt for multiple shipments of barley. It reads, “29,086 measures barley 37 months Kushim”.
“The most probable reading of this sentence,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, “is: ‘A total of 29,086 measures of barley were received over the course of 37 months. Signed, Kushim.’ ”
Like many things in history, the tablet does have mystery attached; at a certain point historians have to make an inferential leap. For all we know, ‘Kushim’ could’ve been a job title. But all signs indicate Kushim was a real Sumerian man who was, as National Geographic puts it, “a record keeper who counted things for others—in short, an accountant”.
This isn’t really surprising, though. Accounting has a historical pedigree which is enviable. Accounting records older than 7,000 years have been found in Mesopotamia, and documents from ancient Mesopotamia show lists of expenditures, and goods received and traded. The ancient Phoenicians had a phonetic alphabet solely for bookkeeping purposes.
Accounting is as old as civilization because the sedentary life brought with it money, numbers, goods, trade. In general, wherever you find early human settlement, you’ll find proto-accountants tallying and recording the costs of civilization.