New insights into the origins of oracle bone divination: Ancient DNA from Late Neolithic Chinese bovines

Publication date: October 2016
Source:Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 74
Author(s): Katherine Brunson, Xin Zhao, Nu He, Xiangming Dai, Antonia Rodrigues, Dongya Yang
Domestic taurine cattle (Bos taurus) were introduced to China from Central Asia between 3600 and 2000 cal BCE. Most of the earliest domestic cattle remains in China come from sacrificial or ritual contexts, especially in the form of oracle bones used in divination rituals. These oracle bones became closely tied to royal authority and are the source of the earliest written inscriptions in ancient China. In this article, we use ancient DNA to identify uninscribed bovine oracle bones from the Longshan period archaeological sites of Taosi and Zhoujiazhuang (late third millennium BCE). We found that in addition to making oracle bones out of domestic cattle scapulae, people also used aurochs (wild cattle: Bos primigenius) scapulae for oracle bone divination. Wild water buffalo (Bubalus mephistopheles) were also exploited at Zhoujiazhuang, but we did not identify water buffalo oracle bones in our analysis. We propose some morphological criteria that may be useful for distinguishing between these animals, but conclude that it is not always possible to identify bovine scapulae based on morphology alone. Our results indicate that wild and domestic bovines were sometimes present at the same sites and their bones were used in similar ways to make oracle bones. This raises the possibility that these species interbred and that people in ancient China may have experimented with managing indigenous Chinese wild bovines.