During the 19th century, farmers in China’s Henan Province unearthed strange, cracked animal bones while tilling the fields. The bones were thought to be “dragon bones,” or fossilized, mineral-rich dinosaur skeletons. Villagers sold these bones to physicians, who ground them into powders used to treat everything from cramps to wounds.
In 1899, Wang Yirong, an antiquities scholar and chancellor of the Imperial Academy in Beijing, realized the bones were special when he noticed they were covered with a form of ancient writing. Sadly, Yirong’s research was cut short after he killed himself during the Boxer Rebellion. However, his bone collection was sold to his friend, the writer and politician Liu E, who published a book of rubbings in 1903 that revolutionized academics’ understanding of ancient China.
Liu E’s relics turned out to be “oracle bones,” which were used 3000 years ago by Shang Dynasty rulers for both divination and record-keeping purposes. Oracle bones were fashioned from buffed ox scapulae and tortoise shells, and engraved with questions for the ancestors. Rulers inquired about everything from crops to health to war. The bones were then heated with metal rods, which caused their surfaces to fracture. The king or another appointed diviner interpreted the cracks—which were thought to be messages from the dead—and recorded the answers by carving them into the bone.
The bones were a major historical find. Not only did they confirm the Shang Dynasty’s existence, they also provided extraordinarily detailed genealogical records of its royal families, as well as information on the period’s religion, culture, and military. They even recorded the earliest-known descriptions of solar eclipses and comets.
The discovery was important for linguists, too. The bones’ inscriptions are the earliest known form of systematic writing in East Asia, and are a direct predecessor of today’s Chinese script. About 6000 different characters have been identified thanks to oracle bones, including 2000 that have present-day equivalents.
Over the years, a reported 200,000 fragments of oracle bones have been excavated, including 50,000 with inscriptions. Many of them are now in the permanent collections of renowned institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution's Freer Sackler Gallery of Art, and the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
Unfortunately, experts believe that many oracle bones were crushed into medicines over the years—meaning that countless records of China’s early history are now lost forever. But with recent discoveries like the identification of new oracle bone characters, the bones still teach scholars new things about the Shang Dynasty—will likely continue to do so far into the future.