The use of ink can be traced back about 40,000 years. Ink colouration to enhance imagery and tell stories predates writing. The oldest caves paintings are found in El Castillo, Spain and Sulawesi, Indonesia.  The first paintings to depict the natural world are between 30,000 and 32,000 years old and can be found at Chauvet Caves, France.

In this era, the ink used was based on red, ochre and black manganese dyes, but also plant sap and animal blood. Since then, the material of ink and its characteristics has changed incredibly.


Words and pictures remained an artistic means of communication for more than 35,000 years. Writing emerged in the Sumerian region of Mesopotamia around 3,200 BC, and it was produced either by creating impressions in clay or through carving into other surfaces. The development of writing with ink took place around 2,500 BCE, at approximately the same time in both Egypt and China.

For their pigment, the inks used a type of carbon called lamp black, which is created by partially burning tar with a little vegetable oil. The pigment was suspended in gum or other glue, to ensure it adhered to the host surface. There was a strong need for the writing to endure, and the carbon ensured this. The advent of ink-based writing also went hand in hand with the use of the first paper in the form of papyrus, made from the pith of the papyrus plant, a type of sedge. However, papyrus was fragile, it couldn’t be folded, and was susceptible to both dry and wet conditions. So parchment, made from animal skin, began to replace papyrus at the start of around the 1st Century.


India ink was used in China from the 4th Century, and was also the type of ink employed for writing the Dead Sea Scrolls. Carbon-based inks such as India ink are pigmented, and they have great durability, so light and chemicals don’t cause fading. However, they also require paper that’s absorbent, because they will flake off of non-absorbent surfaces such as parchment. As a result, around the 8th century, inks using chemical precipitation were developed further and became more common. The first wide spread ink was iron gall with a tannic acid base. This was deployed with a quill pen to parchment or vellum, making this the standard mode of writing from the 12th  to the 19th Century.


Part two to follow in December 2015.