First known sentence discovered in ancient alphabet – on a head lice comb | Science and technology news


From food that gets stuck to that awkward moment when your razor’s battery dies halfway through, there are downsides to sporting a beard too.

But if it makes you feel better, yesterday’s facial hair problems sound a lot worse.

In a remarkable discovery, researchers have translated the first sentence ever written into the ancient language of the Canaanites, the people of lands believed to have included parts of Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

The inscription on a small ivory comb from around 1700 BC. is: “May this tusk eradicate the lice from hair and beard!”

The team that found it in Tel Lachish, Israel, says it’s a spell to eradicate beard lice.

“This is the first sentence ever found in the Canaanite language in Israel,” said Professor Yosef Garfinkel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“This is a milestone in the history of the human ability to write,” he added.

Evidence of how the alphabet was used 3,700 years ago

Professor Garfinkel and his team, including colleagues from Southern Adventist University in the US, say the crest came from an elephant’s tusk.

While excavated in 2017, the engraving was so shallow that it was not noticed until during post-processing earlier this year and was discovered by Semitic epigrapher Dr. Daniel Vainstub has been decrypted.

The inscription consists of 17 Canaanite letters and seven words.

“There are Canaanites in Ugarit in Syria, but they write in a different script, not the alphabet that is used to this day,” explained Professor Garfinkel.

“The Canaanite cities are mentioned in Egyptian documents, the Amarna Epistles, which were written in Akkadian, and in the Hebrew Bible.

“The comb inscription is direct evidence of the use of the alphabet in daily activities some 3,700 years ago.”

An aerial view of Tel Lachish where the ridge was discovered. Image: Emil Aladjem

Do you know anything about the ridge itself?

The comb is only 3.5cm x 2.5cm and has teeth on both sides.

While the teeth themselves are broken, their bases are still visible and the central part is quite eroded – possibly due to pressure from the fingers holding it during treatment.

Based on its material, it was probably an imported luxury item – possibly from Egypt.

As parents of young children will surely notice, its design is not dissimilar to the fine-toothed combs used today to treat head lice and nits.

Using a microscope, the researchers took high-resolution photos of the comb and actually found some remnants of head lice.

They say that given the comb’s suspected origins, it’s a sign that lice were a problem even in the upper echelons of society.

Fig. 3. Close-up of Canaanite letters on the right side of the crest (Source: Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority).
A close-up of some of the crest’s inscriptions. Image: Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority

Lachish was a major Canaanite city-state and the second most important city in Judah, the biblical kingdom.

To date, 10 Canaanite inscriptions have been found in Lachish, more than anywhere else in Israel – but never in a complete set.

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