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Tortoise Pace for Chinese Writing?

29 April 2003 (All day)
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Signs or lines? Tortoise shells found in graves bear markings that may be the precursors of Chinese writing.

Writing did not emerge in China until 2 millennia after it appeared in what is today southern Iraq, about 5200 years ago. But a team of Chinese and U.S. researchers now proposes that writing in China went through a long, slow evolution that stretches back an astonishing 8000 years. They argue that etched marks found on tortoise shells in a Neolithic grave in Henan Province are the earliest known precursors to what became the system of characters--and that they likely were used for shamanic purposes.

That widely publicized claim, made in the most recent issue of Antiquity, has earned mainly skepticism from many Western scholars. “There's nothing new here,” grumbles Robert Murowchick, a Boston University archaeologist. He and others dismiss the notion that these simple geometric signs can be linked to early writing.

The team led by Xueqin Li, a senior archaeologist at the University of Science and Technology in Hefei, drew on artifacts from a site called Jiahu that dates to the 7th to 6th millennia B.C. Over the past 4 decades, archaeologists have investigated 349 graves containing everything from an ancient seven-hole flute made from the bone of a crane to turquoise ornaments. In two dozen of these graves, excavators also found tortoise shells, which in one grave replaced the skull. Recently, researchers discovered nine signs incised clearly on 14 of the shells; most date from 6600 B.C. to 6200 B.C. Many of the marks are simple combinations of lines, but the authors contend that some resemble early characters for “eye” and for several Chinese numerals. “We don't say they are language or words,” says co-author Garman Harbottle, a chemist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. “We do say these are signs.”

Scholars have long debated whether marks made on pottery beginning about 4500 B.C. were simply local signs of ownership or clan or were precursors to later Chinese characters found at the end of the Shang dynasty around 1200 B.C. Li's team argues that those marks are indeed linked to characters and that the Jiahu evidence pushes back their evolution substantially. Nonsense, say others. “There certainly is a long evolution,” says Murowchick, “but there is no evidence that these are the key links.”

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the find is why rather than how Chinese writing developed. Many of the Shang characters were found on tortoise shells just like those of Jiahu 4 millennia earlier, and there is evidence that tortoise shells were used as early as the Neolithic for divination.

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