Oracle bones, which contain the earliest known written Chinese language, were discovered by accident at the end of the 19th century. An official from the Qing Dynasty was ill and one of his doctor’s cures was described as dragon bones. The man noticed that these seemed to be bits of tortoise shell with strange patterns carved on them. He kept them and showed them to scholars who concluded that they were writing from about 3,000 years previously during the Shang Dynasty and very important historically.
Further investigation revealed that these ‘bones’ (some were ox scapulas and some tortoise shells) had been discovered at the site of the Shang Dynasty capital and eventually archaeological digs found more than 100,000 pieces of bone and shell. A lot of the writing is in the form of pictograms and about 4,500 different characters have been identified and nearly 2,000 of them deciphered.
At the time of the Shang Dynasty, the area was marshy and full of tortoises, a favourite food. The people were very superstitious, asking the gods for the reasons for extremes of weather and looking for advice before going to war, hunting, travelling or just the future in general. They looked for the answers by making a hole on the inside of a tortoise shell then putting it on a fire to make cracks on the outside. The soothsayer would then predict the outcome by ‘reading’ the cracks and the results would be carved onto pieces of tortoise shell or bone. A few of the bones that have been found have the outcome inscribed as well.
Later the area dried out and tortoises became harder to find, so bamboo strips were used instead; a practice that evolved into fortune telling with bamboo sticks which can still be seen today.