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Etchings on Chinese stoneware may be world's oldest examples of writing

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
July 11th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Etchings found on stoneware excavated from eastern China may be the oldest examples found yet of human writing. The etchings are about 1,400 years older than the oldest known written Chinese language.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Chinese scholars remain undecided on whether the etchings are indeed actual writing, or a precursor to words that should be described as symbols. In either case, the etchings are thought to be significant on the origins of Chinese language and culture. Oracle bones, the oldest current known Chinese writing found on animal bones, date back to 3,600 years ago during the Shang dynasty.

A group of Chinese scholars on archaeology and ancient writing met recently in Zhejiang province to discuss the findings. All agreed that the incisions, which were found on more than 200 pieces dug out from the Neolithic-era Liangzhu relic site south of Shanghai - are not enough to indicate any developed writing system.

Lead archaeologist Xu Xinmin, however said they include evidence of words on two broken stone-ax pieces, in spite of the fact that the inscription haven't been reviewed by experts outside of the country.

One of the pieces has six word-like shapes strung together to resemble a short sentence. Thousands of fragments of ceramic, stone, jade, wood, ivory and bone excavated from the Liangzhu relic site between 2003 and 2006, Xu said.

"They are different from the symbols we have seen in the past on artifacts," Xu said of the markings. "The shapes and the fact that they are in a sentence-like pattern indicate they are expressions of some meaning."

Six characters are arranged in a line. Three of them resemble the modern Chinese character for human beings and 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," Cao Jinyan, a scholar on ancient writing at Hangzhou-based Zhejiang University says. He notes that the markings should be considered hieroglyphics.

"If you look at the composition, you will see they are more than symbols," Cao adds.

Archaeologist Liu Zhao from Shanghai-based Fudan University argues that there was not sufficient material for any conclusion.

"I don't think they should be considered writing by the strictest definition," Liu said. "We do not have enough material to pin down the stage of those markings in the history of ancient writings."

Chinese scholars have agreed to call them "primitive writing," a vague term that suggests the Liangzhu markings are somewhere between symbols and words.

Currently, the oldest writing in the world is believed to be from Mesopotamia, dating back more than 5,000 years.

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