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The Oldest Known Sentence in the First Alphabet Was Found On…a Lice Comb?

Photo Credit: Menahem Kahana / AFP / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Menahem Kahana / AFP / Getty Images

Researchers in Israel have made an incredible discovery etched in the body of an ancient lice comb recovered from an archaeological site in 2017. Although the comb itself was intriguing when it was found, new research has revealed what they believe to be the oldest written sentence in the first alphabetic script, Canaanite. Not only is this finding important to our understanding of the language, but what it says is surprising.

Ancient Canaanite

Canaanite, also known as Proto-Sinaitic script, is considered to be the earliest form of alphabetic writing. It was first discovered by Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie and his wife Hilda while excavating a turquoise mine in 1904–1905. The pair found numerous inscriptions in the temple on site. They thought they had simply found hieroglyphs but soon realized it was something different. It’s believed that Canaanite was derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs and used between the 19th and 15th centuries BCE.

Canaanite inscriptions carved into a rock
Canaanite inscriptions on a rock which was once believed to be the only certainly deciphered word in the script – reads “b’lt.” (Photo Credit: Unknown Author/ William Foxwell Albright/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain)

Invented around 3,800 years ago, the script moved away from using symbols as indicators of sounds or full words. Instead, each symbol represented a single letter. The script was used in many different areas and is believed to have been created in Egypt.

Making the discovery

There were also a few items with the script found in Canaan. The ivory comb was discovered at the archeological site of Tel Lachish, a large Canaanite and Israelite city. Despite being a populated area, there is very little known about the Canaanites because very few of their written records have survived.

Instead, what historians know about them comes from the texts of other people. This lice comb gives us more information about the lives of Canaan’s elite.

Aerial view of an archaeological site with many roads running through it.
An aerial picture shows the Tel Lachish archeological site where an ivory comb with a rare inscription that sheds new light on the use of Canaanite language some 3,700 years ago has been discovered, 2022. (Photo Credit: Menahem Kahana/ AFP/ Getty Images)

As ivory was an expensive material, the comb would likely have only been used by one of the wealthy residents of Lachish. While the researchers attempted to discern the age of the comb using carbon dating, a common procedure for aging ancient artifacts, they were unsuccessful. Although less precise, they are still able to date the comb to around 1,700 BCE. So how is it that researchers know the artifact was meant to remove lice?

It took them putting it under a microscope to find out.

Lice begone

When they did so, they discovered the remains of headlice stuck in the teeth of the comb, confirming their hypothesis about its purpose. The device’s design also makes it clear that it was made to rid the user of lice. One side of the comb has thick, wide teeth which would be used to comb hair. The other side contains many smaller teeth which would be the right size to remove the lice and any eggs that they laid.

Ivory comb with missing teeth and faint inscription carved on the body.
Photograph of the ivory comb featuring the Canaanite inscription taken at the conservation laboratory of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, November 8, 2022. (Photo Credit: Menahem Kahana/ AFP/ Getty Images)

It also helps that the Canaanite inscription on the artifact says exactly what it was for. The comb reads: “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.” “People kind of laugh when you tell them what the inscription actually says,” said Michael Hasel, an archaeologist at Southern Adventist University in Tennessee who was involved in the comb’s discovery.

More from us: Discovery of Unknown Fossil in Museum is Changing the History Books

Apart from being an incredible linguistic discovery, this sentence also acts as a reminder that ancient people were really no different than us. They just wanted their lice to be gone.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.