20,000 Year History of Open Data

We tend to think about open data as a relatively new phenomenon, but really it’s been around for thousands of years. Inspired by a post by Stephan Wolfram outlining the history of systematic data and computable knowledge, I’ve decided highlight some ancient historical milestones of open data.

For at least 20,000 years people have been tallying notches on bones, wood and stone. Presumably, Stone Age people were counting the number of antelope in a herd and number of fish caught, and the data would often be shared (open data) between individuals and/or between tribes for personal services and trade.

Ishango bones - notched
From over 17,000 years ago we have the Lascaux cave paintings. These incredible works of art tell us stories about the hunting and survival of our ancestors. While not exactly machine readable, these paintings contain pictographic data about horses, stags, cattle, and bison of the prehistoric age. They paint for us a picture of the hearts and minds of the Palaeolithic people.

Dark horse Hieroglyphics dating back to 3,200 BCE are examples of open data. Hieroglyphic data would be seen in fields, schools, and on public structures, while some hieroglyphics were hidden in the tombs or temples of pharaohs. Among other subjects, the ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphics to communicate information about religion and government. Hieroglyphics were used to keep important records of yearly tax collection and grain and cattle production. The open hieroglyphics of the pharaohs’ scribes are some of the first examples of open government data.

Stonehenge, dating back to 2950 BCE, is another open data monument in our history. The stones were placed to mark sunrise at the midsummer solstice, sunset at the midwinter solstice, and likely had other astronomical significance.

For many years the Inukshuk was a form of open data used by the Inuit for communication and survival. The Inukshuk data told Inuit travellers that they were on the right path by providing a waypoint or navigation or directional aid. They also may have indicated migration routes or places where hunting and fishing were plentiful.

There are many more examples in our ancient and modern history of open data, from Babylonian stone boundary markers that record the ownership of land to modern data about politician’s travel expenditures. If you have any examples of open data in our near or ancient history you’d like to share, please feel free to leave a comment below.


2 thoughts on “20,000 Year History of Open Data

  1. Interesting info. Unfortunately the trend is in the opposite direction with Copyright and Patents being extended far beyond the original dates and probably soon to be eternal. The entire US publishing system was built upon disregard for copyright, same as in many nascent areas of the world. As they matured and produced their own materials, copyright and patents became more strictly enforced. Ever wonder why our kids hum classical music when watching cartoons? Because the copyright on that music expired and placed into the public domain. That public domain of content gave Disney huge potential it would not likely other wise of had, but as their copyright on their material has aged, through massive lobbying and control of $$ it has extend copyright terms. More modern, or classical rock will probably never make it into the public domain thanks to these changes. The struggle for control of patent and copyright legislation will dictate and shape what data will be available in the open realm as we move forward, and most people don’t even know the battle is on – but the lobbyists sure do.

    • Thanks for the info Thor. I know that artist can use a creative commons license that allows them to retain copyright while allowing others to non-commercially copy, distribute, and make some uses of their work. However, I didn’t know about the lobbying to extend the copyright terms. It seems to me that it should expire after a reasonable amount of time.


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