Is this the oldest instruction manual ever? (Bet you can't guess what it's for!)

The humble instruction manual has a long history. Throughout time, technical writers have been plying their trade in a variety of industries, but without the clear job description we tout today. However, the lack of a formal job description in the field didn't stop them from writing fascinating instructions for others to follow.

Early variations on instruction manuals include guides on witch hunting, performing sacred services, and even wrestling.

In fact, the earliest written guide to grappling dates back to nearly 100 A.D. The Greek text offers plenty of user friendly tips for throwing your opponent to the floor. Unlike modern how-to manuals, this guide didn't benefit from spell-checkers or proportionally spaced fonts; it was scratched on papyrus by a careful hand. You can read more about this guide here. But it's still not the oldest manual ever...

How To: Defeat your Enemies!

Many ancient manuals covered the details of how to wage war effectively. The number of early guides dedicated to warfare shows how prominent a role conflict played in early civilization.

Sun Tzu's Art of War is likely the oldest manual on military strategy. The date of origin is controversial, but most historians point out that the author's peak activity as a Chinese military general was around 512 BC, during what was called the Spring and Autumn Period of ancient China.

The manual takes a philosophical perspective on the gritty details of war; how to oversee battles and emerge victorious. It's teachings have been applied to everything from modern business practices to interpersonal relationships.

The Art of War is often considered part of a collection of strategy guides known as the Seven Military Classics, along side volumes such as Jiang Ziya's Six Secret Teachings, and the Three Strategies of Huong Shigong.

The Chinese were not alone in documenting tactics for warfare. Around the same time (roughly 300 BC), Indian author Chanakya produced his guide to governing and military strategy, the Arthashastra.

[Sidenote: I wonder how this collection would stack up against the vast amount of documentation produced by our defense industry today.]

The Oldest Manual Ever?

But even these ancient military texts are fairly modern in comparison to an instruction manual found in the Hittite archives excavated from what we now know as Turkey.

There, an archaeological dig turned up the oldest horse training manual known to mankind.

Dating back to 1345 BCE, this guide thoroughly covers the details of training horses, and was written by a master trainer named Kikkuli. The guide was etched into multiple tablets that preserved the author's knowledge through the ages.

Could this guide be the earliest case of technical writing ever?


There may indeed be other manuals that pre-date even this ancient guide to horse training. However, as we creep back toward the origins of written language, an increasing amount of instructions were passed on through images or pictographs. These early forms of communication are definitely the predecessors of modern technical illustration. All of this begs the question: what exactly is technical communication, and where do we draw the lines?

So, you see? The instruction manual has been around for a very long time.

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