The Earliest Writing? Sign Use in the Seventh Millennium BC at Jiahu, Henan Province, China. (Research)

Article excerpt


It has long been accepted that writing is the principal attribute of an advanced society. L H Morgan. (1974:31) claimed that civilisation "begins with the invention of the alphabet ... and the use of writing", while for Frederick Engels (1972:92) it was the invention of writing that moved humanity out of an age of barbarism. More recently Daniels (1996:1) stated Humankind is defined by language; but civilisation is defined by writing. We note that writing is commonly held to have originated in the late fourth millennium BC in Mesopotamia (Gelb 1963; Schmandt-Besserat 1978). Here we present signs from the seventh millennium BC which seem to relate to later Chinese characters and may have been intended as words. We interpret these signs not as writing itself, but as features of a lengthy period of sign-use which led eventually to a fully-fledged system of writing. So while we do not challenge the primacy of Mesopotamia in human literacy, we do suggest that China, with a potential archaeological record of nine millennia, offers a unique opportunity to observe the evolutionary stages which led to the development of a script. The signs were discovered on tortoise shells which were excavated in graves at the Neolithic site of Jiahu in Henan Province (Henan 1989, 1999, Zhang & Wang 1998, Zhang et al 1999). After introducing the site, its context and dating, we shall describe the signs and discuss the roles that they may have played in Chinese Neolithic society.

Chronological and geographic context of Jiahu

The site of Wuyang Jiahu lies at 33[degrees] 36' latitude north and 113[degrees] 40' longitude east on the upper reaches of the Huai River, between the Yellow and Yangzi Rivers (Figure 1); (Henan 1999, 3; Underhill 1997, 113). It lies east of Mount Funiu, and has the old course of the Sha River to its north, the Ni River to its south and is close to a small lake also called "Jiahu". In this area, around 13,000 years ago, Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers initiated a form of agricultural production, augmenting their diets with the more predictable, more abundant food supplies of millet and rice (Zhang & Wang 1998; Underhill 1997,108-9,114-5,147-8; Chang 1987,71-95; Normile 1997; Smith 1995; Chang 1980,147). The Pleistocene-Holocene transition (11 000-8000 BC) was marked by the extinction of Pleistocene fauna and the emergence of a warmer, moist climate that favoured agriculture in the North China Plain (Winkler & Wang, 1993).


There followed the development of increasingly complex societies, which in stages acquired the attributes which characterise the Chinese Neolithic: settled village life (Underhill 1997,117), agriculture and me domestication of animals (Yan 1992), the production or elaborately-decorated ceramics (Huber 1983), jade carving (Pearson & Lo 1983, 131), sericulture (Chang 1987, 113, 210), the beginning of bronze-casting technology (Barnard 1983), music (Zhang et al 1999), written language (Keightley 1978, 1989, 1994; Cheung 1983), and inferentially, divination and the ritualisation of religious practice (Chang 1980, 339; Chang 1983). The period culminated in the first recorded dynasties, the Xia (ca. 2200 BC) and the Shang (ca. 1700-1100 BC).

Exploration of the site--the settlement

Jiahu and its incised signs belong near the beginning of this long period of Neolithic development. The site was discovered in 1962, and excavated from the 1980s. Archaeological opinion currently suggests that it represents a very early pre-Yangshao Neolithic culture corresponding to the earliest Peiligang (Shih 1992). Radiocarbon dates determined by accelerator mass-spectrometry measurements at three different laboratories place the site in the 7-6th millennia BC, within three sub-periods: I: 7000-6600, II: 6600-6200 and III: 6200-5500 cal BC (Henan 1999,515; Zhang & Wang 1998; Zhang et al 1999) (Table 1). Given its early date, relatively undisturbed preservation and wealth of archaeological record, Jiahu presents us with an extraordinary opportunity to probe the earliest aspects of the Chinese Neolithic as it developed during the climatic alterations of the Holocene (Chang 1987; Winkler & Wang 1993). …