Archaeologists recently discovered inscriptions in Shanghai that pre-date the oldest known Chinese language by 1,400 years.
The inscriptions were discovered on more than 200 pieces dug out from the Neolithic Liangzhu relic site. “The pieces are among thousands of fragments of ceramic, stone, jade, wood, ivory and bone excavated from the site between 2003 and 2006”, Xu Xinmin, the lead archaeologist, said.
The markings consist of strings of characters and date to around 5,000 years ago. It has been suggested that one set of markings, found on a stone Axe near the Zhuangqiao relic site, shows a newly discovered form of primitive writing, stated archaeologists.
However, Chinese scholars are divided over whether these new discoveries are words or simple markings. However, they all seem to agree that the new discoveries will allow them to shed more light on the origins of Chinese languages and culture.
The oldest writing in the world is believed to have originated in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), a fertile area widely considered to be the cradle of civilization in the West. However, Chinese characters are believed to have been developed independently. The oldest known Chinese writing, found on animal bones (known as oracle bones), dated to around 3,600 years ago, at the time of the Shang dynasty.
Some Chinese scholars, of archaeology and ancient writing, who met last weekend in Zhejiang province to discuss the finding, thought the inscriptions did not indicate a developed writing system. However Xu Xinmin said there was evidence of words on two pieces of stone axes.
One of the pieces has six word-like shapes strung together and resembles a short sentence.
“They are different from the symbols we have seen in the past on artefacts,” Xu said. “The shapes, and the fact that they are in a sentence-like pattern, indicate they are expressions of some meaning.”
The six characters are arranged in a line, and three resemble the modern Chinese character for human beings. Each shape has two to five strokes.
“If five to six of them are strung together like a sentence, they are no longer symbols but words,” said Cao Jinyan, a scholar of ancient writing at Zhejiang University. He said the markings should be regarded as hieroglyphics.
He said there were also stand-alone shapes with more strokes. “If you look at the composition, you will see they are more than symbols.”
But Liu Zhao, an archaeologist at Fudan University, Shanghai, suggested there was not sufficient material for a conclusion. “I don’t think they should be considered writing by the strictest definition. We do not have enough material to pin down the stage of those markings in the history of ancient writings.”
For now the Chinese scholars are calling the markings primitive writing, a vague term that suggests they are somewhere between symbols and words.