Archaeologists say they have discovered some of the world’s oldest known primitive writing, dating back 5,000 years, in eastern China.
Some of the markings etched on broken axes resemble a modern Chinese character, they say.
The inscriptions on artefacts found south of Shanghai are about 1,400 years older than the oldest written Chinese language.
Chinese scholars are divided over whether the markings are words or something simpler, but they say the finding will shed light on the origins of Chinese language and culture.
The oldest writing in the world is believed to be from Mesopotamia, dating back slightly more than 5,000 years. Chinese characters are believed to have been developed independently.
Inscriptions were found on more than 200 pieces dug out from the Neolithic-era 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, lead archaeologist Xu Xinmin said.
The inscriptions have not been reviewed by experts outside the country, but a group of Chinese scholars on archaeology and ancient writing met last weekend in Zhejiang province to discuss the finding.
They agreed that the inscriptions are not enough to indicate a developed writing system, but Mr Xu said they include evidence of words on two broken stone-ax pieces.
One of the pieces has six word-like shapes strung together to resemble a short sentence.
“They are different from the symbols we have seen in the past on artifacts,” he 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 of them 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 on ancient writing at Hangzhou-based Zhejiang University. He said the markings should be considered hieroglyphics.
He said there are also stand-alone shapes with more strokes: “If you look at the composition, you will see they are more than symbols.”
But archaeologist Liu Zhao from Shanghai-based Fudan University warned that there was not sufficient material for any conclusion.
“I don’t think they should be considered writing by the strictest definition,” he said.
“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 have agreed to call it primitive writing, a vague term that suggests the Liangzhu markings are somewhere between symbols and words.
The oldest known Chinese writing has been found on animal bones – known as oracle bones – dating to 3,600 years ago during the Shang dynasty.
Irish Examiner live news app for smartphones lets you quickly access breaking news, sport, business, entertainment and weather.
Irish Examiner ePaper app gives you the entire newspaper delivered to your phone or tablet for as little as 55c a day.
A man who appeared to provide sign language interpretation on stage for Nelson Mandela's memorial service, attended by scores of heads of state, was a "fake", the national director of the Deaf Federation of South Africa said.
There has been a slight decrease in the number of residential mortgages in arrears over 90 days and an increase in the number of permanently restructured mortgages in October, according to the Department of Finance.
The Limerick intermediate team is still without a manager, but, in a compromise that was backed unanimously at a meeting of the county board in Claughaun GAA club last night, the dispute that had threatened to throw the county back into the chaos it had witnessed only three years ago was finally resolved.
MYTHS are the stories that groups tell themselves: the beautiful lies that allow life go on. This is a week of great myth making. In the death and interment of Nelson Mandela we are witnessing modern myth being made in front of our eyes. But myths can be pernicious and evil — corroding life as well as enhancing it.
Tipperary native Brian Lonergan fulfilled a long-standing ambition when his tricolour appeared on live TV during Sunday's NFL clash between the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks at Candlestick Park.
THE scandal at the Central Remedial Clinic is a gift to the Government. Here we have an organisation seemingly plundering charitable funds, to feather the nests of a group of Fianna Fáil insiders, all of whom can be linked easily to former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.