Divination devices used by soothsayers of the Chinese Shang dynasty (ca. 17661050 B.C.). They were usually either the scapula (shoulder blade) or leg bones of cattle or sheep, although tortoise shells were also used. The practice was to use them in connection with a question requiring a simple yes or no answer. The questions themselves were usually addressed to dead ancestors thought to inhabit an unseen spirit world, although they were also asked of gods, including the high god Shangdi. After posing the question, the soothsayer would then place a heated rod on the bone, causing it to crack. The form and direction of the cracks would then provide the answer, which was then inscribed on the bone itself. The inscriptions on the oracle bones provide a great deal of information on not only the Shang dynasty’s religious beliefs but on genealogical, economic, and political practices as well. They therefore provide a great deal of insight into this first documented Chinese dynasty, especially its rulers, who used the bones for divination on many matters. They also provide the first examples of China’s written language. The largest collections of oracle bones have been uncovered at Anyang in northeastern China.
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