Did any sub-Saharan African cultures developed writing?

I read some time ago that the Asante had no writing system of their own, and that their government had to hire Arabic scholars to keep records for them. But what about the great older building and trading cultures, like Great Zimbabwe, medieval Ghana, Aksum, and Songhay? Did they have their own writing systems? If so, has any of their writing survived? If so, can modern scholars decipher it?

Meroe their writing is only partially deciphered

I don’t recall any writimng systems associasted with Great Zimbabwe (which could’ve helped settle the issue of who built it in the first place), and the Wiki article mentions nothing but stone structures:


There’s Tifinagh, used among the Tuaregs, though I’m not sure if that’s what the OP is looking for. More generally, the Arabic script was used for writing a number of trade languages, such as Hausa and Swahili, from a long way back.

I don’t think Meroe is sub-Saharan, judging from that map.

In general, as Jared Diamond points out in Guns, Germs, and Steel, very few cultures independently conceived of and created writing systems. Paradoxically, this is partly because writing is such an obvious advantage that it spreads easily. Many writing systems were either copied from neighbors or invented after seeing the advantages writing gave a neighbor, even in the Fertile Crescent and Europe.

Isolated societies of course didn’t have the advantage of neighbors to copy from. Some did indeed invent language from whole cloth, some didn’t.

Sub-Saharan Africa is close enough and accessible enough from Egypt and the Fertile Crescent that the idea of writing could spread there relatively quickly and easily. As noted, some of the sub-Saharan cultures just adopted Arabic script rather than fiddle with making something new. For a good example of a writing system made up after seeing the advantage writing gave others, although it’s not African, see Cherokee .


And interestingly, one of the few written languages that actually sprang up in subsaharan Africa was apparently derived from Cherokee. I’m speaking of the Vai script of Liberia.

Does that count, with Egypt to the immediate north?

I think of the Tuaregs as being Saharan more than sub-Saharan. But the use of Arabic script for writing Hausa and Swahili seems like a perfectly legitimate example of sub-Saharan writing. After all, most European languages, including English, are written with an alphabet adopted from another language, and a dead one at that.

My next step has to be to read up on what cultures used this written Swahili and Hausa; any hints are appreciated.