Accidental Discovery: a 3700-Year-Old Lice Comb Bears the Oldest Known Writing

Eric Sentell
3700-Year-Old Canaanite Lice Comb that HasDafna Gazit/Israel Antiquities Authority

Writing comes in three basic forms:

  • Alphabetic, like what you're reading now;
  • Cyrllic, the rune-like shapes of Russian languages; and
  • Pictographic, like the heiroglyphs of ancient Egypt or modern-day Mandarin.

I don't know about you, but I'm grateful for an alphabet rather than cyrllic.
Example of Cyrllic Writing"Ceasoslov" (Часословь), a horologion published in Blaj. Preserved in the Central University Library

But mandarin is even harder for Westerners to learn.
Chinese AlphabetWikimedia Commons

If you're reading this alphabetic writing, you can thank the ancient Canaanites of the Hebrew bible, or what Christians call the Old Testament.

The Canaanites are best-known as the foes of ancient Israel throughout the Hebrew bible. They occupied the "promised land," which ancient Jews fought to claim.

But the Canaanites also invented the alphabet that later became the basis for Latin, which is the basis for English and the alphabetic languages of Europe.

The oldest known example of alphabetic writing was just accidentally discovered on a 3700-year-old Canaanite lice comb dug up in ancient Israel.

How do we know it's a lice comb and not a regular comb or some other tool?

The 7-word inscription on the comb reads:

“May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.”

This inscription is not only the oldest known artifact of writing; it is also the only complete sentence in Canaanite.

Accidental Discovery

The comb was discovered in 2016 in Israel, but the written inscription wasn't noticed until a researcher zoomed in on a iphone photo of the comb.

According to CNN:

The comb was unearthed in 2016 at an Israeli archaeological site called Lachish, a Canaanite city state in the second millennium BC. However, it wasn’t until 2021 when Madeleine Mumcuoglu, a research associate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, first noticed the engraving when she zoomed in on an iPhone snapshot of the comb after completing her study of the lice remains found on the artifact.

The comb is pocket-sized and made of ivory. It has small teeth for fine combing as well as larger teeth for untangling knots of hair.

Likely, the comb was a gift to someone important or wealthy.

So, don't feel too bad if you or your child have had an encounter with lice.

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