Discoveries by Chinese archaeologists suggest that simple pictograms - the forerunner of written texts - may have been used there as early as 5500 BC. Until now scholars have unanimously credited the people of Sumer (southern Iraq) with inventing writing in about 3200 BC.
It is the accumulation of evidence, rather than any single discovery, that is leading archaeologists to revise their views.
Prehistorians at Shandong University say they have discovered the oldest text ever found in China at a neolithic (New Stone Age) site called Ding Gong near the Yellow River, east of Jinan.
Dating from about 2500 BC - 1,200 years earlier than previous discoveries of writing in China - it consists of 12 sophisticated characters engraved on pottery. Three have been tentatively identified as representing the words 'cauldron,' 'sheep' and 'Jun', the deified ancestor of China's early rulers.
At the same site, a further 11 pictograms have been identified on jade slices from the neolithic Liangzhu culture, which also flourished in about 2500 BC near what is now Shanghai. Some are compound characters containing up to three elements.
Both the Ding Gong script and the Liangzhu pictograms date from about 600 years later than the earliest Mesopotamian simple pictograms. But the sophisticated nature of the script strongly suggests it is the end product of hundreds of years of evolution - probably from some form of pictographic script developed in or before the early 3rd millennium BC.
Other evidence supports this. Three pictographic characters - including one believed to mean 'light' - have been found at a 3500-2800 BC site at Da Wen Kou, 70 miles south of Ding Gong. The 'light' character has two elements - a sun sign and a fire sign.
More significant is a find at an early neolithic site called Jiahu, 400 miles south of Peking. This material - two pictograms on tortoise shells - dates from as early as 5500 BC, 1,800 years before the first Sumerian examples.
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