Archaeologists just discovered the earliest written sentence in human history

“This is the first sentence ever found in the Canaanite language in Israel."
Nergis Firtina
The ivory comb.

The oldest known written sentence has been found by archaeologists, according to a press release published Nov .08 regarding a new study published in the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology. The remarkable finding features an entire Canaanite phrase from around 1700 BCE (before the current era), and could be the earliest written sentence in the history of humanity.

An ancient spell to get rid of head lice

Engraved on a head-lice comb, researchers deciphered the sentence as, "May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard,” which they claim may in fact be a spell.

Under the leadership of Professors Yosef Garfinkel, Michael Hasel, and Martin Klingbeil, a team from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU) and Southern Adventist University in the United States discovered the comb at Tel Lachish in Israel.

“This is the first sentence ever found in the Canaanite language in Israel. There are Canaanites in Ugarit in Syria, but they write in a different script, not the alphabet that is used till today. The Canaanite cities are mentioned in Egyptian documents, the Amarna letters that were written in Akkadian, and in the Hebrew Bible," shared Professor Yosef Garfinkel.

"The comb inscription is direct evidence for the use of the alphabet in daily activities some 3700 years ago. This is a landmark in the history of the human ability to write.”

The early stage of the alphabet

The Canaanites were the first to utilize the alphabet, which was later adopted by the majority of other languages around the globe, approximately 1800 BCE.

The epigrapher, or interpreter, of the study Dr. Daniel Vainstub said in The Times of Isreal, “the comb’s inscription is written in the style that characterized the very earliest stage of the alphabet’s development." He also explained that the lice were the third of the ten plagues of Egypt and it also affected Canaanites.

Some linguistic discoveries are found here for the first time in a Canaanite inscription, Vainstub also added. “I discovered the letter ‘sin‘ — the Canaanites had a special letter for that. Here [on the head lice comb] we have that letter.” (In modern Hebrew it is denoted by a dot on the left side of a letter, versus the right, “shin.”)

Archaeologists just discovered the earliest written sentence in human history
Rendering of a 17th century BCE inscription in early Canaanite script from Lachish.

The inscription's letters were carved in an extremely shallow manner. While it was unearthed in 2017, Dr. Madeleine Mumcuoglu didn't see the letters until after post-processing in 2022. Miriam Lavi cleaned and preserved it.

Ancient 'wear and tear': The comb also exhibits strain from having been used to eliminate head lice

Also mentioned in the press release was the fact that the comb measures only 3.5 by 2.5 centimeters. Both sides of the comb have teeth. The comb teeth themselves were shattered in antiquity, despite the fact that their bases are still visible. The central section of the comb has been somewhat eroded, presumably due to the strain of fingers holding the comb during haircare or the removal of lice from the head or beard.

Under a microscope, the study team examined the comb for the presence of lice and photographed both sides. On the second tooth, 0.5-0.6 mm head lice remains were discovered. However, the environmental circumstances in Lachish did not allow for the preservation of full-head lice, only the exterior chitin membrane of the nymph stage head louse.

About the ancient Canaanite city, Lachish

The Hebrew Bible makes numerous references to the ancient Canaanite and Israelite city of Lachish, which is located in the Shephelah ("lowlands of Judea") region of Israel on the south bank of the Lachish River. The biblical Lachish has been linked to the modern ruin by that name, known as Tel Lachish.

The first reference to Lachish is found in the Amarna texts. Lachish is listed as one of the cities that the Israelites destroyed in the Book of Joshua as a result of joining the coalition against the Gibeonites. Later, the region was given to the tribe of Judah and included in the Kingdom of Israel. Lachish became one of the most significant cities in the country of Judah after the division of the kingdom, and second only to the capital, Jerusalem.

Study abstract:

An inscription in the early Canaanite script from Lachish, incised on an ivory comb, is presented. The 17 letters, in early pictographic style, form seven words expressing a plea against lice.

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