An infestation of head lice seems like a rite of passage in many cultures and countries – and it is an affliction that dates back to as long as humans have had hair. As anyone who has had them - or has a child who has had them – finds out, everyone you know has a treatment for head lice. However, most of them don’t work as well as the good old-fashioned louse comb or nit picker wielded fastidiously by a good old-fashioned nitpicker – who is usually your patient and persistent mom. What does this have to do with the discovery of the world’s oldest sentence written in the world’s oldest language? It turns out that sentence is written on an ivory comb used for – you guessed it – delousing hair. Will people thousands of years from now find similar sentences on nit combs from 2022?
Professor Yosef Garfinkel, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, directed the team which found the ivory comb in Lachish, an ancient Canaanite city on the south bank of the Lakhish River in the Shephelah region of Israel. Lakhish is mentioned several times in the Hebrew bible as one of the most important cities in the Kingdom of Judah – although it is best known for its conquest by the Neo-Assyrians in 701 BCE, which is depicted in great detail on the Lachish Reliefs carved shortly after the defeat and now on display in the British Museum. Lashich is now Israeli national park and an archeological site yielding new discoveries like the ivory lice comb.
“In the Fourth Excavation’s season of June–July 2016, an ivory comb incised with an early alphabetic inscription was found.”
According to the new research published in the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology, the comb was found in 2016. (A photo of the comb and the inscription can be seen here.) Made of ivory, it measures 1.38 inches by 0.98 inches (3.5 cm by 2.5 cm) and at one time had teeth on both sides, although all that is left are the numbs of the broken teeth. One side had six thick teeth for untangling knotted hair, while the other side had 14 fine teeth for removing lice and their eggs (the nits). The press release indicates that the comb was well worn in the middle, indicated it got a lot of use. That should not be a surprise since the that same design is still used on two-sided lice combs sold today. The comb is made from ivory, which made it expensive and most likely imported from Egypt. That should not be a surprise either since mummies found in Egypt dating back to 3000 BCE had head that were covered with dead lice. Lice combs were often found with the mummies and many of the royal mummies had shaved heads – another common treatment for head lice.
“The research team analyzed the comb itself for the presence of lice under a microscope and photographs were taken of both sides. Remains of head lice, 0.5–0.6 mm in size, were found on the second tooth.”
The comb dates back to around 1700 BCE, making it about 3700 years old, but its age and the presence of lice remains are not what got Garfinkel and his team excited about this discovery. On one side of the comb are 17 Canaanite letters. It took the research team until now to determine that these were not just letters but seven words … seven words formed into a sentence using the earliest form of the Canaanite language.
“This is the first sentence ever found in the Canaanite language in Israel.”
The Canaanite or Proto-Canaanite script is the first fully phonemic script and is considered by language scholars to be the first alphabet and the ancestor of the Arabic, Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew and Latin alphabets. Its origin is a mystery but some scholars say Semitic-speaking workers and slaves in Egypt adapted some hieroglyphs to describe sounds, and brought it back with them to Canaan. Very few writings in Canaanite script have been found, which immediately made even this small number of letters special. They became more special when researchers determined it was a sentence – the first ever Canaanite sentence. However, the greatest revelations came from the sentence itself:
"May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard”
That’s right … the tiny letters were a set of instructions or a type of ancient advertisement for the usefulness of this lice comb from Egypt. Because the makers saw the need to explain its usage in a carved inscription, this illustrates that these people of the Bronze Age were concerned about caring for their hair and ridding themselves of the tiny scalp creatures that drove them crazy with itching. The inscription shows an advancement in thinking – prior imprints on personal items were usually the name or status of the owner rather than information about the item itself. It also showed progress in the skill of engraving – such tiny letters required precise skills as well as an understanding of what was being engraved.
“The inscription is very human. 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.”
Professor Garfinkel explains in the press release how huge this tiny discovery is. On the one hand, it is a view into the daily lived of Canaanites 3700 years ago. On the other, it shows a major turning point in the development of civilization because it shows that these people were using the first alphabet in their daily activities.
“This is a landmark in the history of the human ability to write.”
This discovery may be the first ever that puts a positive spin on head lice. This humble yet universally annoying parasite (Pediculus humanus capitis) only lives on humans and feed only on human blood. Before now, the Hebrew bible had some of the earliest mentions of lice and that was as one of the plagues brought upon Egypt. Didn’t Moses know they already HAD head lice?
From a tiny comb with tiny letters comes great historical revelations.