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28 July 2013
Possible discovery of forerunner to Chinese language

When an ancient symbol is found in isolation, it is classed as just that - a symbol. If a series of symbols are found in a row, adjacent to each other, then they could be said to form a word. Now a row of such symbols, etched into part of a stone axe head, are starting to cause quite a debate in China. The pieces of axe head in question were actually discovered between 2003 and 2006 but the markings did not raise any questions until more recent studies were carried out by the Zhejiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology.
     The stone fragments were excavated from a site in Eastern China, in the Lanzhou area of Zhejiang province, and have been dated to approximately 3,000 BCE. The marks, or symbols, bear some resemblance to modern Chinese characters but pre-date any examples of early written Chinese by approximately 1,400 years.
     The conjecture and debate arises from the interpretation of the marks. The fact that six of these symbols appear in a continuous string has lead to the belief that they form a word or sentence. Strength is given to this argument by the fact that a couple of the symbols bear a strong resemblance to the modern Chinese word for human beings. But Chinese scholars are not in total agreement. Archaeologist Liu Zhao, from the Fudan University in Shanghai, is quoted as saying "I don't think they should be considered writing by the strictest definition. We do not have enough material to pin down the stage of those markings in the history of ancient writings".

Edited from NBC News, The Associated Press (11 July 2013), CCTV Live (13 July 2013), South China Morning Post (15 July 2013)

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