Chinese Oracle bones — ~1500BC, China

Oracle Bones "horse"

Written Chinese is, by some measures, the most successful writing system on the planet.  It has persisted for thousands of years and is still in use today.  While it has gone through a number of distinct changes, those changes have been evolutionary, not revolutionary; they did not change the fundamental nature of the writing system.  Akkadian, as I have discussed, was quite different from Sumerian in both the shapes of the glyphs and in the nature of what was represented (a syllabary instead of logograms).  Chinese logograms have stayed logograms for at least four thousand years.  Although the modern shapes look very different from the earliest shapes, it is possible to trace their evolution.

The Oracle Bones script existed in about 2000BC, but were lost for a while.  In the late 1800s AD, Chinese scholars discovered that medicine men were grinding up bones with glyphs on them, and recognized that those glyphs were precursors to their writing system.  Apparently people would carve questions about the future (like “when will it rain?”) on bones or turtle shells, then put the bones into a fire.  The diviner would look at how the bone cracked from the fire and (allegedly) use that information to give the questioner an answer.  (The archeologists are now digging up more of the bones, the medicine men hopefully less.)

Among the glyphs found on the bones were glyphs for an ink brush and an old-style Chinese book made from bamboo slats.  This strongly suggests that there was writing that predated the oracle bones, but which was on perishable material.  This is an argument which might bolster the status of symbols like Vinca: perhaps there was more writing on perishable media.  However, it might also damage their claims to full writing system-hood: if Vinca was actually writing, it should have had more non-perishable evidence.

In fact, there is some evidence for possible earlier writing systems in China.  The Jiǎhú script has a small number of symbols that might be a writing system which dates from 6600BC.  There are at least seven other candidates for Neolithic Chinese writing systems, but like Vinca, we will probably never know.  All of them, however, are less pictorial than Oracle Bones script, while one would expect an earlier script to be more pictorial than Oracle Bones.

Links: Wikipedia, Omniglot, Ancient Scripts

About ducky

I'm a computer programmer professionally, currently working on mapping applications. I have been interested non-professionally for a long time in the effect on society on advances in communications technology -- things like writing, vowels, spaces between words, paper, etc.
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2 Responses to Chinese Oracle bones — ~1500BC, China

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