Article ID: CBB870667256

Cracking bones and numbers: solving the enigma of numerical sequences on ancient Chinese artifacts (2020)


Numerous recent discoveries in China of ancient tombs have greatly increased our knowledge of ritual and religious practices. These discoveries include excavated oracle bones, bronze, jade, stone and pottery objects, and bamboo manuscripts dating from the twelfth to fourth century BCE. Inscribed upon these artifacts are a large number of records of numerical sequences, for which no explanation has been found of how they were produced. Structural links to the Book of Changes, a divination manual that entered the Confucian canon, are evident; yet, the algorithm described therein dates to the slightly later second to first century BCE. By combining archeological and statistical evidence, we propose a new methodology that enables us to reconstruct and test cleromantic techniques which can explain how these numerical sequences were generated. Dice and divination stalk use, either in combination or separately, appear in fact to have been underlying the rather stable numerical patterns in ancient China all the way back to the late Shang dynasty (1300–1046 BCE). Bringing to light such a long-standing technique, which awaits further confirmation from the ever-growing database of newly discovered numerical and textual records, can change drastically our understanding of early Chinese history and of the historical development of sophisticated arithmetical practices and the rationalization of chance.

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Authors & Contributors
Bergmans, Luc
Koetsier, Teunis
Brown, David
Chemla, Karine Carole
Kalinowski, Marc
Harper, Donald J.
East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine
Early Science and Medicine: A Journal for the Study of Science, Technology and Medicine in the Pre-modern Period
Archive for History of Exact Sciences
Circumscribere: International Journal for the History of Science
Apeiron: Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science
State University of New York Press
Presses Universitaires de Vincennes
Harvard University Press
World Scientific
Pennsylvania State University Press
Science and religion
Divination; prognostication
Darwin, Charles Robert
Cusanus, Nicolaus
Stifel, Michael
Faulhaber, Johann
Descartes, René
Wallis, John
Time Periods
19th century
Early modern
20th century, early
Middle and Near East
Mediterranean region
University of Chicago

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