Discover more from Anthropology.net
The Oldest Sentence Written In World's First Alphabet
The oldest instance of a sentence written using the alphabet is on an inscription on an ancient ivory comb.
The small characters were only recently discovered by scientists after the fine-toothed object was discovered several years ago at Tel Lachish, an ancient Canaanite city in the foothills of central Israel. The seven scarcely legible words that are formed by the faint symbols together roughly translate to "May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and beard." The encouraging remark is considered to have been penned around 1700 BCE and is the first trustworthy Canaanite text that archaeologists have discovered.
Only 3.66 centimeters (1.4 inches) long and 2.51 centimeters (1 inch) wide, the comb is constructed of elephant tusk ivory. Even tinier is the scanty lettering on its body… Some letters are only one millimeter in height. Others are virtually unreadable due to extreme fading, making it difficult to decipher them without the help of their surroundings. The comb has fragments of 14 fine teeth on one side and six huge teeth on the other, most likely used for cleaning hair and removing lice and their eggs.
A tooth of the comb was actually discovered to possess the tough outer shell of a head louse from a very, very long time ago on the finer side of the comb (below). Although some samples of head lice discovered in human hair date back at least 10,000 years, this evidence of head lice suggests that even affluent Canaanites were bothered by these tiny crawlies.
This is the first Canaanite-language verse that has ever been discovered in Israel. There are Canaanites in Ugarit, Syria, although they use a different writing system than the alphabet now in use. The comb inscription provides concrete proof that the alphabet was used in everyday life around 3,700 years ago. This marks a significant turning point in the development of written language.
This is significant because the Canaanite script, also known as the Phoenician alphabet, is the earliest known example of an alphabet that was later altered and used by many other cultures around the world. These original, ancient letters are the basis for the majority of today's alphabets, including Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and Russian. Although the contemporary Chinese writing system is based on pictograms that date back about 5,000 years, the radicals and symbols that make up its characters don't always support the phonetic foundation of words in the same way. And even though there are countless other instances of single letters from this early Canaanite writing, none of them have been connected to form something comprehensible and significant.
The comb's ivory was most likely bought from elephants in Egypt, indicating that the owner was wealthy enough to acquire a foreign luxuries. According to the research, even the affluent classes in ancient Jerusalem suffered from head lice, to the point where a special comb was created to get rid of them. More recent artifacts dating between 1200 and 1400 BCE have also been found to bear examples of Canaanite-scripted curses and hexes. In fact, a jar from the same dig site as the comb was discovered with enchanting writing that was more recent in date.
A lowly parasite is the target of the writing on the comb, which was likely written many centuries earlier than previous specimens. The ancient comb could not be radiometrically dated, but based on other items discovered nearby, researchers believe the instrument was written around 3,700 years ago, during the Bronze Age.
Experts believe the actual words were inscribed at the "very earliest stage of the alphabet's evolution," not long after the Canaanite alphabet emerged, based on the manner of the ancient letters. It didn't take long for us to begin jinxing just about anything that disturbed us once we developed written language.
Vainstub, D., Mumcuoglu, M., Hasel, M., Hesler, K., Lavi, M., Rabinovich, R., Goren, Y., & Garfinkel, Y. (2022). A Canaanite’s wish to eradicate lice on an inscribed ivory comb from Lachish. Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology, 2, 76–119. https://doi.org/10.52486/01.00002.4