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March 2006

Clues to origin of Chinese characters
Posted: Thursday, March 23, 2006
7,000-year-old pottery offers clues to origin of Chinese characters

Chinese archaeologists claim that pottery utensils dating back 7,000 years ago which bear inscriptions of various symbols are probably one of the origins of Chinese characters.

They made the conclusion on the basis of several years' study into the symbols carved on over 600 pottery ware items unearthed from the New Stone Age site in Shuangdun village, Xiaobengbu town of Bengbu, a city in East China's Anhui Province.

The symbols include rivers, animals and plants, and activities such as hunting, fishing and arable farming, as well as symbols recording events, said Han Xuhang, a research fellow with the Anhui Provincial Archaeological Research Institute.

The pottery mainly includes bowls and cups, with all the symbols carved on the bottom or on hidden parts of the pottery. "It is obvious that these symbols were not used to decorate the pottery utensils but had a special meaning and purpose," said Xu Dali, an associate research fellow with the Bengbu City Museum.

Xu said the symbols are carved in pairs and also in groups, which express comparatively complete meanings and show the characteristics of sentences and paragraphs.

Similar symbols were also discovered in other places nearby, which shows that these symbols were recognized and used in a certain region, said Xu.

Many of the symbols are similar to the inscriptions on bones or tortoise shells of the Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 BC) and many are still conserved in characters used by ethnic groups today, said Xu.

Li Boqian, head of the ancient civilization research center of Beijing University, said that the origin of characters has a long process of development.

The period from 9,000 years to 4,000 years ago was the origin and initial development period of Chinese characters, and the period from 4,000 years ago to 221 BC was the time when characters developed towards maturity, which was followed by a period of wide use of characters after Qinshihuang, China's first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (211-207 BC).

These notional symbols are an important link in the development of Chinese characters and could be one of the origins of Chinese characters, said Li.

The discovery of so many symbols at Shuangdun ruins is rarely seen in the research into ancient civilizations and "it gives us great hope of finding more important archaeological discoveries," said Li Xueqin, chairman of the China Pre-Qin Dynasty Historiography Society.

The discovery not only provides important clues about the origin of Chinese characters, but also an opportunity to review the existing theory on the origin of Chinese characters, said Li, who is also a professor with Qinghua University.

Covering 12,000 sq m, the Shuangdun ruins were first discovered in 1985 and excavations were made on an area of 375 square meters from 1986 to 1992. The ruins were regarded as the earliest New Stone Age site in the area along the middle reaches of the Huaihe River, the third largest river in China.

The Yellow River and the Yangtze River valleys have been regarded as the cradles of Chinese civilization. Discovery of the Shuangdun ruins shows that the Huaihe River valley also has its own independent cultural system and is one of the birthplaces of Chinese civilization, Li said.

Source: Xinhua

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New Satellite Data On Universe's First Trillionth Second
Posted: Friday, March 17, 2006
Source: Johns Hopkins University

Scientists peering back to the oldest light in the universe have new evidence for what happened within its first trillionth of a second, when the universe suddenly grew from submicroscopic to astronomical size in far less than a wink of the eye.

Using new data from a NASA satellite, scientists have the best evidence yet to support this scenario, known as "inflation." The evidence, from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) satellite, was gathered during three years of continuous observations of remnant afterglow light -- cosmic background radiation that lingers, much cooled, from the universe's energetic beginnings 13.7 billion years ago.

In 2003, NASA announced that the WMAP satellite had produced a detailed picture of the infant universe by measuring fluctuations in temperature of the afterglow -- answering many longstanding questions about the universe's age, composition and development. The WMAP team has built upon those results with a new measurement of the faint glare from the afterglow to obtain clues about the universe's first moments, when the seeds were sown for the formation of the first stars 400 million years later.

"It amazes me that we can say anything about what transpired within the first trillionth of a second of the universe, but we can," said Charles L. Bennett, WMAP principal investigator and a professor in the Henry A. Rowland Department of Physics and Astronomy at The Johns Hopkins University. "We have never before been able to understand the infant universe with such precision. It appears that the infant universe had the kind of growth spurt that would alarm any mom or dad."

WMAP results have been submitted to the Astrophysical Journal and are posted online at

The newly detected pattern, or polarization signal, in the glare of the afterglow is the weakest cosmological signal ever detected -- less than a hundredth of the strength of the temperature signal reported three years ago.

"This is brand new territory," said Princeton University physicist Lyman Page, a WMAP team member. "We are quantifying the cosmos in a different way to open up a new window for understanding the universe in its earliest times."

Comparing the brightness of broad features to compact features in the afterglow light (like comparing the heights of short-distance ripples versus long-distance waves on a lake) helps tell the story of the infant universe. One long-held prediction was that the brightness would be the same for features of all sizes. In contrast, the simplest versions of inflation predict that the relative brightness decreases as the features get smaller. WMAP data are new evidence for the inflation prediction.

The new WMAP data, combined with other cosmology data, also support established theories on what has happened to matter and energy over the past 13.7 billion years since its inflation, according to the WMAP researchers. The result is a tightly constrained and consistent picture of how our universe grew from microscopic quantum fluctuations to enable the formation of stars, planets and life.

According to this picture, researchers say, only 4 percent of the universe is ordinary familiar atoms; another 22 percent is an as-yet unidentified dark matter, and 74 percent is a mysterious dark energy. That dark energy is now causing another growth spurt for the universe, fortunately, they say, more gentle than the one 13.7 billion years ago.

WMAP was launched on June 30, 2001, and is now a million miles from Earth in the direction opposite the sun. It is able to track temperature fluctuations at levels finer than a millionth of a degree.


The WMAP team includes researchers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.; The Johns Hopkins University; Princeton University; the Canadian Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics in Toronto; the University of Texas at Austin; Cornell University; the University of Chicago; Brown University; the University of British Columbia; the University of Pennsylvania; and the University of California, Los Angeles.

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