Inscribed animal bones and jade pieces unearthed in Changle County of eastern Shandong Province are earliest examples of Chinese characters dating back 4,500 years ago, the latest archaeological studies show.
The discovery broke the record for the previous earliest known examples of Chinese characters, the inscribed animal bones and tortoise shells, known as the oracle bones, of the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC-1100 BC), by more than 1,300 years. The oracle bones were major discoveries at the Yinxu in Anyang of central China's Henan Province.
The Shandong discovery was first made in 2004 by Xiao Guangde, the Changle Culture and History Committee director and an amateur collector. He noticed many sub-fossil bones were being thrown away when local peasants were digging at the Yuanjiazhuang relic site in the county.
After carefully cleaning some of the unearthed bones, Wang found they bore obvious inscriptions. He also bought other samples, often at high prices, from local people. Over a period of four years, his collection grew to about 100 inscribed bones and two jade relics also with inscriptions.
Lined up in order, the inscriptions bear resemblance to drawings and characters, and show objects such as a bird, a crab, a triangle and the sun. Some inscriptions emerge repeatedly.
"This kind of repeating proves the inscriptions are carved by human beings," Wang Yuxin, the China Yinshang Association of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences president, noted.
Li Laifu, the Shandong Oracle Scripts Association president, said the inscriptions may be left by the Dongyi people who lived in what is today's Shandong Province as early as 8,300 years ago. They made birds as their totem.
However, archaeologists speculated from the bones' color, structure, and degree of their petrifaction, that the scripts had existed for about 4,500 years.
"Unlike other inscriptions dated earlier than the oracle bones, these scripts are in a considerable number and are systematic," said Wang."Their structures also follow certain rules."
He reckoned the oracle bones found in Henan may inherit some characters from the newly-found scripts. However, he denied they were for divination use.
"The bones and jade don't bear deviation marks such as drills, or chisel and burn traces, so the writing maybe for keeping records of events."
The discoveries were named the "Changle bone scripts" after the place where they were found. Though they could not be translated at present, archaeologists believed they may provide valuable evidence in the studies of the evolution of ancient Chinese characters, and to reproduce a picture of an ancient society that was barely known.
Oracle bones were first unearthed in the late 19th century at the ruins of Yin (Yinxu) in Anyang, capital of the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC-1100 BC). Yin was the ancient name for the Shang Dynasty. The ruins were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006.
(Xinhua News Agency October 25, 2008)