Did a Coded Message Lead an American to a Lost Civilization in China?

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When Sheldon Gosline was living in China in 2013 to study the country’s lesser-used languages, a colleague at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences showed him a mysterious set of ancient inscriptions, etched into flat stones and found by farmers in Guangxi province.

“He said, ‘See what you make of this,’” Gosline remembers. “No one has been able to figure this out.”

When Gosline looked at the inscriptions, he noticed something no one else had. Several characters appeared to belong to the Indus script, an undeciphered set of symbols that date back more than 4,500 years. Others could have been Persian cuneiform, turned on their sides. It was the first clue that led him to a lush mountain plateau, overlooking a river valley, where he found what he believes could be the ceremonial grounds of an ancient civilization.

It was the stuff of Indiana Jones dreams. Gosline's training is in Egyptology, but as a unaffiliated researcher he has dabbled widely in ancient history. For more than a decade, he has been playing with the idea that the earliest writing in China could be connected to writing from the Indus Valley, where an early civilization stretched across parts of India and Pakistan. Writing didn’t appear in China until more than a thousand years later, in the second millennium B.C. There’s little evidence of how it was developed, and no evidence that languages from further to the west had any influence. 

But if Indus or Persian characters had made their way to southern China, it would suggest, at the very least, that the people living there had an extensive trade network that connected them, perhaps indirectly, to South Asia and the Middle East. At most, it could mean that imperial conquerors from northern China had wiped out evidence of a thriving writing culture in the south. Either way, it would undermine a traditional way of understanding China’s history, where Chinese culture was developed exclusively in the north and diffused outwards.

Gosline’s discovery raised questions with huge implications. What was Persian cuneiform doing in a remote village in southern China? Could it be real? If it was real, what did it mean?




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