The Oldest Known Sentence Written in an Alphabet Has Been Found on a Head-Lice Comb (Circa 1700 BC)

Image by Daf­na Gaz­it, Israel Antiq­ui­ties Author­i­ty

I don’t recall any of my ele­men­tary-school class­mates look­ing for­ward to head-lice inspec­tion day. But had archae­o­log­i­cal progress been a few decades more advanced at the time, the teach­ers might have turned it into a major his­to­ry les­son. For it was on a comb, designed to remove head lice, that researchers in south­ern Israel recent­ly found the old­est known sen­tence writ­ten in an alpha­bet. Invent­ed around 1800 BC, that Canaan­ite alpha­bet “was stan­dard­ized by the Phoeni­cians in ancient Lebanon,” writes the Guardian’s Ian Sam­ple, lat­er becom­ing “the foun­da­tion for ancient Greek, Latin and most mod­ern lan­guages in Europe today.”

The comb itself, dat­ed to around 1700 BC, bears a sim­ple Canaan­ite mes­sage: “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.” As Sam­ple notes, “ancient combs were made from wood, bone and ivory, but the lat­ter would have been expen­sive, import­ed lux­u­ries. There were no ele­phants in Canaan at the time.”

Despite its small size, then, this comb must have been a big-tick­et item. The New York Times’ Oliv­er Whang writes that these facts have already inspired a new set of ques­tions, many of them not strict­ly lin­guis­tic in nature: “Where was the ivory comb inscribed? Who inscribed it? What pur­pose did the inscrip­tion serve?”

As our lice-com­bat­ing tech­nol­o­gy has evolved over the mil­len­nia, so have our alpha­bets. From the Canaan­ite script “the alpha­bet con­tin­ued to evolve, from Phoeni­cian to Old Hebrew to Old Ara­ma­ic to Ancient Greek to Latin, becom­ing the basis for today’s mod­ern Eng­lish char­ac­ters.” And that was­n’t its only path: Korea, where I live, has a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent alpha­bet of its own, but one that caught on for the same rea­sons as its dis­tant cousins else­where in the world. The key is sim­plic­i­ty, as against old­er writ­ing sys­tems in which one char­ac­ter rep­re­sent­ed one word or syl­la­ble: “Match­ing one let­ter to one sound made writ­ing and read­ing far eas­i­er to learn,” Whang writes. Not that some stu­dents, even today, would­n’t sub­mit to the lice comb rather than prac­tice their ABCs.

via Smith­son­ian

Relat­ed con­tent:

How to Write in Cuneiform, the Old­est Writ­ing Sys­tem in the World: A Short, Charm­ing Intro­duc­tion

The Evo­lu­tion of the Alpha­bet: A Col­or­ful Flow­chart, Cov­er­ing 3,800 Years, Takes You From Ancient Egypt to Today

How Writ­ing Has Spread Across the World, from 3000 BC to This Year: An Ani­mat­ed Map

The Atlas of Endan­gered Alpha­bets: A Free Online Atlas That Helps Pre­serve Writ­ing Sys­tems That May Soon Dis­ap­pear

An Ancient Egypt­ian Home­work Assign­ment from 1800 Years Ago: Some Things Are Tru­ly Time­less

What the Roset­ta Stone Actu­al­ly Says

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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