Archaeologists in China have apparently unearthed 5,000-year-old hieroglyphs, a discovery with potentially significant implications for the study of the origins of written language, the Associated Press reported today. Lead archaeologist Xu Xinmin stated of the alleged writing on the relics:
“They are different from the symbols we have seen in the past on artifacts … The shapes and the fact that they are in a sentence-like pattern indicate they are expressions of some meaning.”
The discovery significantly shifts the known chronology of the development of the Chinese language, as the glyphs would be contemporary with the earliest known human writing in Mesopotamia and are some 1,400 years older than the so-called “oracle bones,” previously thought to be the earliest known written Chinese.
That is, of course, if the analysis of the archaelogists defending the discoveries is true. The Chinese state, like many illiberal and autocratic regimes, has a penchant for propaganda centered around establishing a jingoistic view of the nation’s historical heritage. And a hint of criticism is offered at the bottom of the story from within the Chinese archaeological community itself — one Liu Zhao, of 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.”
When speculative discoveries with headline potential are propagated as wire stories without additional reporting, the nuance (and likely insignificance) of the actual findings get buried. And the differences in journalistic rigor even at the headline level can be stark — contrast The Huffington Post’s headline, “China Discovers Some Of The World’s Oldest Writing,” with the far more circumspect phrasing from the Guardian, “Inscriptions found in Shanghai pre-date ‘oldest Chinese language by 1,400 years.'”
Though it’s difficult to develop an authoritative thesis on this without further consulting an international cadre of linguistic and archaeological experts — the typical process of academic peer review that confirms major discoveries — we encourage you, dear reader, to consult the two images of allegedly linguistic symbols/scratches offered up by the AP and compare them with complexity of the Sumerian cuneiform.