Archaeologists have discovered written characters in Zhejiang province dating back 5,000 years, potentially the earliest found in China.
The characters are engraved on stone axes excavated from the ruins of the Zhuangqiao tomb. The inscriptions were made almost 1,000 years earlier than those previously discovered on bone or tortoiseshell.
Archaeologists have long believed such oracle bones are the oldest written language of China, dating back 3,600 years.
Professor Liu Zhao from the ancient characters research centre at Fudan University in Shanghai said he believes the discovery is of extreme importance in the study of Chinese history and of great value for the research of social structures in ancient Chinese civilization.
"We were going through archaeological findings from the Zhuangqiao tomb and making drawings for the findings, when we discovered the primitive characters," Xu Xinmin, a researcher with Zhejiang Institute of Archaeology, told China Daily on Wednesday.
The Zhuangqiao tomb is in Qunfeng village of Lindai township, Pinghu city.
Xu and his colleagues teamed up with the Pinghu Museum to excavate the ruins in two separate digs from June 2003 to October 2004 and from May to September 2006.
Xu found primitive writings and engravings on about 240 pieces. On two stone axes, he found consistent methods of engraving and groups of characters arranged in order.
Archaeologists and scholars of ancient characters held a forum in Pinghu recently. They agreed that the discovery is significant to studies on the origins of Chinese characters. It will take further study to decide whether these characters are predecessors to the oracle bones.
Xu first found very light engravings, believed to be from the Neolithic Age, on the surface of a stone axe.
"They have a focus. They are not totally out of order," Xu said.
Some patterns consist of more strokes and look more complex, and they appear only once, while some are of simple structures and appear in groups. Xu and his colleagues also found similar engravings on another axe.
While drawing to record the patterns for the engravings, Xu found characters that resembled items, such as flags, fish and bugs. Six of the characters are lined up, each consisting of no more than five strokes. Three of them are the same. "It was obviously a sentence with meaning," Xu said.