Oldest written sentence found on a head louse comb |  Language

Oldest written sentence found on a head louse comb | Language

Oldest written sentence found on a head louse comb | Language

This is a simple sentence that expresses the hopes and fears of parents today as much as it did the Bronze Age Canaanite who had the double-edged ivory comb on which the words are written.

Believed to be the oldest sentence written in the oldest alphabet, the luxury item reads: “Let this tusk root out the lice of the hair and beard.”

BC in the second millennium and at Lachish, the second most important city in the kingdom of Judah, the comb shows that people endured lice for thousands of years, and that even the wealthiest were not spared the grim raids.

“The writing is very human,” said Professor Yosef Garfinkel, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who helped lead the Lachish excavation. “You have a comb, and on the comb there is a desire to destroy the lice in your hair and beard. Today we have all these sprays and modern drugs and poisons. They didn’t have them before.”

The comb, which measures 3.5cm by 2.5cm, was found at the site in 2017, but the shallow carvings on the surface were only noticed last December. Analysis of the signs confirmed that the script was Canaanite, the earliest alphabet invented about 3,800 years ago.

Oldest written sentence found on a head louse comb |  Language
A script taken from a comb found in 2017. Photo by Daniel Weinstaub

Efforts to obtain the age of the comb through carbon dating have been unsuccessful, but researchers believe it was made between B.C. around 1700. The comb is worn and has lost its teeth, but the remaining stumps show that it once had six teeth on one side for removing tangles of hair, and 14 narrow teeth on the other for removing lice and eggs.

Further evidence of the comb’s purpose came when the researchers examined it under a microscope and discovered the hard outer membranes of the half-millimeter-long nymphal stages of head lice.

The comb letters spell out seven words that make up the first fully deciphered sentence in the Canaanite dialect written in the Canaanite script, the researchers said. Journal of Jerusalem Archaeology.

Ancient combs were made of wood, bone, and ivory, but the latter were expensive, imported luxuries. There were no elephants in Canaan at that time.

The world’s first writing systems originated in Mesopotamia and Egypt in BC. around 3200 AD, but they were not alphabetic. They relied on hundreds of different symbols to represent words or syllables, and as such took years to master, said Christopher Rolston, a professor of Northwest Semitic languages ​​at George Washington University in the US.

Lachish, the leading city-state of Canaan B.C.  in the second millennium
Lachish, the leading city-state of Canaan B.C. in the second millennium. Photo: Emil Aladjem

The earliest alphabet was invented in B.C. around 1800 by Semitic-speaking people who were familiar with the Egyptian writing system, Rolston says. Known as the Canaanite or early alphabet, the system was used for hundreds of years, particularly in the Levant, and was standardized by the Phoenicians of ancient Lebanon. It later became the basis of ancient Greek, Latin, and modern languages ​​in modern Europe.

“The fact that this inscription is about ordinary life is particularly fascinating,” Rolston said. “Lice have been a perennial problem throughout human history. And this inscription beautifully reveals that even the rich and famous in ancient times were not free from such problems. We can only hope that this inscribed comb was useful in doing what it says it was supposed to do, root out some of these pesky insects.”

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