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Earliest handwriting found?

Chinese relics hint at Neolithic rituals.

Symbols carved into tortoise shells more than 8,000 years ago may be the oldest words yet discovered. The findings may also shed light on the ritualistic practices of Neolithic China.

The relics were unearthed at a mass-burial site at Jiahu in the Henan Province of western China. Twenty-four graves yielded 14 shells bearing 11 different signs1.

The markings represent "some form of sign use or early writing", says archaeologist Garman Harbottle of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, who analysed the symbols.

Other scholars are sceptical, however. Until we know whether the inscriptions stood for words or sounds, and "we know what language the people who produced the mark used, no one can say whether they are writing", counters William Boltz, an expert in Classical Chinese at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Ancient Mesopotamia - the region now covered by Iraq - is widely recognized as the birthplace of writing. The Jiahu signs predate these earliest scribblings by more than 2,000 years. Some carvings anticipate the Chinese characters for 'eye' and 'window', which were first seen 5,000 years later during the Shang dynasty. Others resemble the numerals 1, 2, 8, 10 and 20.

"Chinese probably developed indirectly over thousands of years, in many different places, in many different ways," argues Harbottle. The Jiahu signs may have contributed to this process, he argues.

Boltz disagrees. He says that 5,000 years is "far too long a period for there to have been any regular continuous development". He adds: "It's highly improbable that these marks have anything to do with Chinese writing directly."

The site, only 5% of which has been excavated, was discovered in 1962. To date, the foundations of 45 houses, 370 cellars, 9 pottery kilns and 349 graves have been unearthed.

No one can say whether the marks are writing William Boltz , University of Washington

One grave hosts a headless skeleton, with eight tortoise shells positioned where the skull should be. "This points out the importance of ritual," says Harbottle.

The people of the Shang dynasty used tortoise shells to try to contact dead ancestors. Diviners would write questions on the hard casings and cast them into a fire. The cracked shells would then be interpreted as characters, affording the Shang "a link to heaven".

It is possible that similar customs from Jiahu were carried forwards, Harbottle speculates.


  1. Li, X., Harbottle, G., Zhang, J. & Wang, C. The earliest writing? Sign use in the seventh millennium BC at Jiahu, Henan Province, China. Antiquity, 77, 31 - 44, (2003).

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Pilcher, H. Earliest handwriting found?. Nature (2003).

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