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Planet Earth

Writing on the Half Shell

By Jocelyn SelimAugust 1, 2003 5:00 AM


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Tortoise shells from western China hint that the written word may have been invented in Asia, not the Middle East. Garman Harbottle, a chemist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, analyzed 24 shells excavated from graves of men thought to be religious leaders. He found that the 11 symbols inscribed on the shells strongly resemble characters and numerals from China's first complex writing system, the Shang script, thought to have developed 5,000 years later. The shells also predate the oldest recorded writing, found in Mesopotamia, by more than 2,000 years.

Photograph courtesy of Changsui Wang.


Harbottle cautions that it is too soon to call the inscriptions (above) a written language. "The well-documented development of writing in Mesopotamia involves a transition from clay tokens with pictures of mercantile items, like oxen, to abstract symbols representing spoken words. We can't be certain that the Chinese symbols were used to represent any abstracts of speech," he says. The tortoise shells were taken from the same site that yielded the earliest known musical instruments, leading Harbottle to ponder a connection: "The spiritual power accorded to tortoises and music in later references suggests that the origin of both were driven by religion or ritual, not mercantile exchange."

The tortoise-shell script may force a rethinking of the development of Chinese writing. The pictographs resemble Shang symbols for "eye" and "window," but historians find it hard to imagine how such symbols could survive so little changed for five millennia.

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