Scientists Translate the Oldest Sentence Written in the First Alphabet

Inscribed on a Canaanite comb, the words reveal a struggle with head lice

An ivory comb
The comb is made of ivory and inscribed with the sentence: "May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard." Credit: Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority

The oldest sentence written in the world's first alphabet describes a problem that still plagues humans today: head lice. Carved into a tiny ivory comb, the words read: “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.” 

The writing was inscribed in the language of the Canaanites, a group that lived between approximately 3500 and 1150 B.C.E. in what’s now Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine. Researchers recently published the translation in the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology

“The inscription is very human,” co-author Yosef Garfinkel, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel who helped direct the excavations, tells the Guardian’s Ian Sample. “You have a comb, and on the comb, you have a wish to destroy lice on the hair and beard. Nowadays we have all these sprays and modern medicines and poisons. In the past they didn’t have those.”

Archaeologists unearthed the comb back in 2016 from an Israeli archaeological site called Lachish. But the miniscule one- to three-millimeter letters were overlooked until 2021, when research associate Madeleine Mumcuoglu at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem noticed the sentence while zooming in on a photo of the comb, per CNN’s Katie Hunt. Mumcuoglu had been studying lice remains found on the artifact.

“I just took a picture with my iPhone. And it was not good enough. So I brought it to a very strong light and took another picture,” Mumcuoglu tells the publication. Researchers later identified 17 letters that formed seven words. 

While clusters of Canaanite letters have been found on pottery shards and arrowheads, this discovery marks the first complete written sentence in the language. 

The world’s first writing systems were not alphabetic. These emerged from Mesopotamia and Egypt around 3200 B.C.E. and used symbols to represent syllables and words, per the Guardian. The Canaanite alphabet was invented later, likely in or near Egypt, writes New Scientist’s Colin Barras. Experts debate the exact time when the alphabet originated, though most researchers put it around 3,800 years ago, per the publication. 

This alphabet was used for hundreds of years and eventually became the foundation for ancient Greek and Latin writing systems. 

“The Canaanites invented the alphabet… Nowadays, every person in the world can read and write using the alphabet system. This is really one of the most important intellectual achievement[s] of humankind,” Garfinkel tells CNN. “When you are writing in English, you’re really using Canaanite.”

The comb measures less than 1.5 inches wide and 1 inch high. On one side, it had six thick teeth used to untangle knots in hair. The other side had 14 finer teeth to remove lice and their eggs. All of the teeth broke off over time, but their bases remain visible, per the study. 

The exact date of the comb is still unknown. Two attempts at carbon dating it were unsuccessful. But researchers estimate it’s from between 1700 to 1550 B.C.E. based on comparisons with other artifacts. The alphabet was previously found in the Sinai desert in Egypt, dating between 1900 B.C.E. and 1700 B.C.E., writes Eleanor H. Reich for the Associated Press

But Austrian archaeologist Felix Höflmayer, who was not involved in the study, tells the AP that dating objects in this way is not definitive. 

“There are just not enough securely dated early alphabetic inscriptions currently known,” he tells the publication. But he says the find was still significant: “Seventeen letters preserved on a single object is definitely remarkable.” 

Christopher Rollston, a Northwest Semitic languages and literatures expert at George Washington University who was not involved with the new research, tells New Scientist the research is a “brilliant decipherment.” 

“Throughout human history, lice have been a problem,” Rollston tells the publication. “We can only hope that this inscribed comb was useful in doing that which it says it was supposed to do: Root out some of these pesky insects.”

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