With school children midway through autumn term, head lice cases are on the rise again. Not much has changed since 1700 BCE, according to the oldest sentence written in humankind’s earliest alphabet.
Last year it was discovered that a small comb is inscribed with the oldest complete sentence in the world’s first alphabet. Recovered by archaeologists in the ruins of Lachish, an important ancient Canaanite city in present day Israel, the ivory comb is roughly 3.5 cm long, with the remains of wide-spaced teeth on one side, presumably for untangling hair, and finely-spaced teeth on the other. The purpose of these latter was confirmed by the discovery of traces of the thick outer shell of an ancient, larval-stage louse. Yes, it’s a lice comb.
Lice has been dated on prehistoric skulls to as far back as 10,000 years ago, so the discovery of the bug bits wasn’t in itself particularly noteworthy. And it was only after sitting in a drawer for more than 5 years that the comb’s real significance came to light. In an interview with the BBC, Dr Madeleine Mumcuoglu at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem described how when she finally decided to write a paper about the comb, she put it under a bright light to get an accompanying photo. What she saw then astounded her.
The comb was inscribed with a series of minute Canaanite letters, which when translated spelled out: May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.
Whether it’s something like a prayer, or maybe an ancient version of advertising copy politely promising the power of the comb-maker’s product, the one thing that’s sure is the discovery’s significance: it’s our only surviving complete sentence written in Canaanite. While the Canaanite alphabet is well known, prior to the comb no full sentences in the language had ever been found. Other Canaanite texts from this period exist as mere fragments.
Dating the comb with carbon measurements had already proved fruitless, but judging from the script, researchers estimate the comb dates from roughly 3,700 years ago. Which makes the inscription our oldest full sentence in an alphabetic language, ever.
Because the Canaanite alphabet is the first alphabet in the world, ever. And anybody who ever wrote or read Arabic, Greek, Hebrew or Latin – or has written or read any of the written scripts derived from them – has the Canaanites to thank. Some of the letters on the comb, including Q, X, W and V, look shockingly familiar.
The ancient Canaanites thrived along the Eastern Mediterranean shore, throughout Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, from roughly 3500-1100 BCE, and may have first based their alphabet on the older non-alphabetic writing systems of their neighbours in Egypt and Sumer.
As old as the comb’s inscription is, its concerns are humbly familiar. Household pests, life’s little annoyances – as any 21st century parent checking their school children’s heads with a fine-toothed comb knows all too well.