The Oldest Known Sentence in the First Alphabet Is Written on an Ancient Lice Comb 

The Canannites invented the first alphabet about 3,800 years ago. The letters, instead of hieroglyphics like those used in Egypt, became the basis for written Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. English, Russian, and many other modern languages have alphabets derived from this earliest version. Scientists just discovered the oldest known sentence written in this first alphabet on an ancient ivory comb dated to about 3,700 years ago. The inscription reads: “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.” Yes, this important artifact that fills in language gaps going back millennia was in fact used to remove lice and their eggs from the human head. The scientists even found remnants of lice on the comb. 

An ivory comb from 3,700 years ago with faint carving and broken teeth
Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority

The scientific team confirmed that the comb is elephant ivory, likely imported from Egypt. It would have belonged to someone with status and wealth, implying that they were still plagued with the pests. The comb has teeth on both sides and the writing faces both directions (as shown in the diagram below). While all of the teeth broke off over the years, one side had six large teeth for combing tangled hair. The other had 14 teeth placed close together to remove lice and eggs from people’s hair and beards. 

Archaeologists excavated the comb in Israel in 2016, but scientists only recently noticed the inscription. They analyzed it using various techniques to reveal details of the letters hidden from the human eye. The team published their findings in the open access peer-reviewed Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology. We first saw the news in The Guardian

Writing of the inscription found on an ivory comb to help decipher its meaning
D. Vainstub et al., Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology (2022)

Other recent discoveries by archaeologists in Israel include hundreds of 2,300-year-old bone dice used for rituals and games and traces of opium in jars from 3,500 years ago.

Melissa is Nerdist’s science & technology staff writer. She also moderates “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth. 

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