A newly discovered inscription on an ancient ivory comb would be the first example of a sentence written using an alphabet that would eventually evolve into the set of 26 letters you are translating into words right now.
The fine-toothed instrument was unearthed several years ago in Tel Lachish, an ancient Canaanite city in the foothills of central Israel, but scientists only recently noticed that the instrument was engraved with 17 lowercase letters .
Together, the barely discernable marks form seven distinct words, “ytš ḥṭ ḏ lqml śʿ[r w]zqt”, which roughly translates to “May this defense extirpate the lice from the hai[r and the] beard”.
The message of hope, believed to have been written around 1700 BCE, is the first reliable phrase archaeologists have found in a Canaanite dialect.
This is a big deal because the Canaanite script (aka the Phoenician alphabet) is the earliest known example of an alphabet, one that would be adapted and adopted by cultures around the world.
Most modern alphabets now derive from these ancient and original letters, including Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and Russian.
While the pictographs that form the basis of modern Chinese writing date back approximately 5,000 years, the system of stems and symbols that make up its characters do not necessarily contribute to the phonetic foundation of words in quite the same way.
And while there are many other examples of isolated letters representing this early Canaanite script, none have been strung together into something legible and meaningful.
“It’s the first phrase found in the Canaanite language in Israel,” says archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel.
“There are Canaanites in Ugarit in Syria, but they write in a different script, not the alphabet which is used until today… The comb inscription is direct evidence of the use of the alphabet in daily activities around 3,700 years ago. It is a landmark in the history of the human ability to write.”
The comb itself is made from elephant tusk ivory and is only 3.66 centimeters (1.4 inches) long and 2.51 centimeters (1 inch) wide.
The shallow inscription on its body is even smaller. Some letters do not exceed one millimeter. Others have disappeared to the point where they are virtually unreadable, making them difficult to interpret without their neighbors for context.
One side of the comb contains the remains of six large teeth, probably for brushing hair, while the other side shows the remains of 14 fine teeth, most likely for removing lice and their eggs.
On the thinner side of the comb, a tooth was actually discovered to contain the hard exterior of a head louse from a long, long time ago (below). It’s not the oldest evidence of head lice ever found – some samples found in human hair date back at least 10,000 years – but it does suggest that even wealthy Canaanites were irritated by these creepy critters.
The ivory used to make the comb was most likely imported from elephants in Egypt, suggesting that the material was intended for someone wealthy enough to afford foreign luxuries. The results suggest that head lice afflict even the wealthy classes of ancient Jerusalem – so much so that a special comb has been made for their eradication.
Spells and hexes have previously been found written in the Canaanite alphabet, but most curses are directed at humans, and other Canaanite inscriptions found on a jar at the same archaeological site date back to 1200 or 1400 BCE.
Other examples of curses and hexagons written in Canaanite letters have been found adorning later artifacts dating between 1200 and 1400 BCE. In fact, similar enchanting inscriptions were found on a jar from the same dig site as the comb, also dated to a more recent period.
The inscription on the comb is thrown at a humble parasite and was probably written many centuries earlier than the other examples.
Radiometric dating of the ancient comb ultimately fell through, but based on other artifacts previously found in the same area, researchers suspect the tool was inscribed in the Bronze Age, around 3,700 A.D. year.
And judging by the style of the archaic letters, experts believe the actual words were written in “the very early development of the alphabet”, shortly after the creation of the Canaanite alphabet.
Once humans had a written language, it didn’t take long for us to start hexing just about anything that bothered us.
The study was published in the Jerusalem Archeology Journal.