What does scapulimancy mean, and how widespread was its use? What does the evidence of violence reveal about Longshan society?

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By all indications, scapulimancy was a widespread practice throughout the early Chinese dynasties, particularly the Shang and Zhou dynasties. During these periods, apyro-scapulimancy and pyro-scapulimancy were widely practiced as a means of entrenching the power of the ruling classes.

However, prior to the Shang and Zhou dynasties, scapulimancy was prevalent in the Neolithic culture of Longshan, typically concentrated in the central and lower Huang Ho regions.

During the Longshan cultural period, this particular practice of divination was associated with an entrenched level of social hierarchy in both life and death. Essentially, institutional violence was prevalent in Longshan society. Certainly, the culture was a violent one: archaeologists have unearthed countless weapons in Neolithic-era Longshan graves. However, what is troubling is that the skeletons of ritually killed infants and adults have also been found buried in the foundations of buildings.

The ruling elite of the Longshan Neolithic era (the select few) held considerable power over the common peoples through the use of scapulimancy. These elite held the power of life and death in their hands. It isn't surprising that they protected this special knowledge of divination scrupulously and reinforced their power by military means. In death (as well as in life), there was a hierarchy. The rich had larger graves, and males had more elaborate burials. The inscriptions on the scapulae also showed intricate graphs, possibly the precursor of a writing system in China.

However, only the elite who wielded the practice of scapulimancy could interpret the meaning of the graphs. Ancestor worship was also predicated on the practice of scapulimancy. So, scapulimancy was prevalent during the Neolithic Longshan era and was a means by which the ruling elite reinforced their power and influence over the common populace.


1) China: A History (Volume 1): From Neolithic Cultures through the Great Qing Empire by Harold M. Tanner

2) Divination and Power: A Multiregional View of the Development of Oracle Bone Divination in Early China by Rowan K. Flad, Current Anthropology, Vol. 49, No. 3 (June 2008), pp. 403-437 (35 pages)

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Scapulimancy means divination by means of a scapula, or shoulder blade of a sacrificed animal or human being. There are actually two types of scapulimancy. The first, technically called "apyromantic" (meaning without fire) simply involves closely examining the shoulder blade of a deceased or sacrificed animal. The second is termed pyromantic scapulomancy or pyro-scapulimancy. This involves heating the shoulder blades and then examining the pattern of the cracks in the bones caused by the fires.  The practice was widespread, not only through China but through Europe as well.

The first thing archaeologists can learn through the study of oracles bones is the degree to which religious practices were diffused over wide areas, suggesting that travel and trade were common. Next, many scholars consider that this formalized use of oracles suggests a hierarchical society in which the results of divination were used as a way of supporting the authority of the ruling classes.

Since the animals killed for divination were eaten, simply reading the bones after the animals were dead does not make the practice inherently any more violent than any other form of killing animals for food. The practice of killing animals as part of a religious ritual and sharing the meat, in fact, suggests some element of the wealthy giving food to the poor in religious context. 

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