Oldest Sentence in Oldest Alphabet Names a Modern Scourge

The wealthiest ancients had a problem with head lice, too
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 9, 2022 11:49 AM CST
It's a 'Landmark in the History' of Human Writing
This undated image released by the Israel Antiquities Authority on Wednesday shows an ivory comb with an entire sentence in the Canaanite language, a 3,700-year-old inscription encouraging people to rid themselves of lice believed to be dated back as far as 1700 BC.   (Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority via AP)

The purpose of the ancient double-edged ivory comb unearthed in Israel is made clear by its inscription: "May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard." In the eyes of researchers, that seemingly ordinary sentence hinting at the scourge of head lice is anything but ordinary. As the Guardian reports, it's believed to be the oldest known sentence written in the earliest alphabet, Proto-Canaanite, which came into use some 3,800 years ago. Until now, "no meaningful Canaanite inscriptions had been discovered in the Land of Israel, save only two or three words here and there," per a release.

Though carbon dating did not establish a concrete date, the small comb is believed to have been created just a century after the alphabet itself, around 1700 BCE. The comb was discovered in the former Canaanite city state of Lachish in 2017, but it wasn't until last December that researchers spotted the shallow engravings upon it. Under a microscope, they were revealed to be 17 tiny letters forming a sentence of seven words, as deciphered by Dr. Daniel Vainstub, a semitic epigraphist at Ben Gurion University and lead author of the study published in the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology.

Canaanite script is not the oldest written language—others originated around 3200 BCE—but it's the first alphabetic one and served as "the foundation for ancient Greek, Latin, and most modern languages in Europe," per the Guardian. As Vainstub tells the Times of Israel, the style of the sentence suggests "the very earliest stage of the alphabet's development." This "evidence for the use of the alphabet in daily activities some 3,700 years ago" represents "a landmark in the history of the human ability to write," says excavation director Yosef Garfinkel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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It also shows even the wealthiest ancients had a problem with head lice as they alone could afford a comb made from the tusk of an elephant, which were nonexistent in the southern Levant, also known as Canaan. The comb was likely imported from Egypt. Per the Times, lice is "the third of the ten plagues of Egypt." This ancient comb originally had six widely spaced teeth on one side for detangling hair and 14 narrowly spaced teeth on the other side for removing lice and eggs. Microscopic traces of lice nymphs were actually found, indicating the comb served its purpose. (More discoveries stories.)

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