Which ancient civilization developed the first writing system is a question that has generated much interest and a lot of debate. The confusion comes from the absence of enough artifacts to allow archaeologists and historians to say for sure whether they were simply looking at a collection of images, a proto-writing system, or a proper writing system.

Jiahu symbols comprise one such collection of symbols that many believe to be the oldest written words. Jiahu symbols comprise 16 different signs, markings or pictograms found carved on tortoise shells over 8,500 years old. These shells were excavated from a burial ground unearthed at Jiahu, a Neolithic archaeologist site in Henan province in western China. Radiocarbon dating of the Jiahu site puts it between 6600 BC and 6200 BC.

The Neolithic Jiahu symbols predate the earliest recorded Mesopotamian writings by over 2,000 years, but it is doubtful whether they can really be called the oldest writing system. In fact, a number of researchers are skeptical of classifying them as a writing system. Some of the Jiahu symbols, such as the characters for ‘window,’ ‘eye’ and numerals 8 and 20, have a striking similarity with a few characters of the Chinese script that is believed to have developed from oracle bone writing around 1200 BC during the reign of the Shang dynasty.

Such a long gap makes a connection between the two writing systems very unlikely, and researchers are of the belief that the Jiahu symbols may be more of a sophisticated system of proto-writing than a technical writing system. They await the discovery of more artifacts before making a conclusive and convincing decision about Jiahu symbols.

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