Researchers decipher the message of a nearly 4,000

In Israel, archaeologists unearthed a tiny ivory comb bearing the oldest known phrase written in the alphabet used by the Canaanites which later evolved into the one we use today. This message refers to a problem that is still relevant today: that of lice. Details of the study are published in the Jerusalem Journal of Archeology.

This small object comes from the ruins of the ancient city of Tel Lachish, in central Israel. Initially, the artifact went unnoticed, in part because several of its “teeth” were broken off, while the rest of the structure was encrusted with dirt. More than half a decade later, scientists finally decided to take another look at it under the microscope, which allowed them to discover its true value. In reality, it was a small comb on which was inscribed a sentence in the Canaanite language: ” may this defense eradicate lice from the hair and beard“.

These few words might make you laugh, but they are anything but banal. Researchers have in fact dated the comb to around 1700 BC. AD. In other words, this formula aimed at treating one of the oldest parasites of mankind would be the oldest complete and decipherable sentence ever found in an ancient alphabetic script, that of the Canaanites. This people, who evolved in the Middle East, is indeed known to have developed the first forms of the alphabet which then evolved to give rise to the letters that we use today.

The ivory comb dating from around 1700 BCE containing a written spell against lice. Credits: Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority

A brief history of the alphabet

Cuneiform in Mesopotamia and hieroglyphs in Egypt are considered the first confirmed systems of human writing. They emerged toward 3,200 BC. J.-C.. These scripts offered hundreds of letters and were largely pictorial, which made them very difficult to learn.

At some point, probably around 1800 BC. BC, a new type of writing appeared in the Near East. This was based on only a few dozen repeated and mixed letters, each letter corresponding to a single basic sound or phoneme. Part of the interest of this alphabet came from its simplicity. Matching a letter to an a sound like this made writing and reading much easier to learn.

The development of this ancient alphabet is not well understood, but scholars believe it was the work of Semitic-speaking people who knew the Egyptian writing system.

Several centuries later, around 1100 BC. J.-C., these first alphabetic writings were adopted by the Phoenicians. The latter, who began to write from right to left, also standardized the shape and position of the letters. This alphabet then continued to evolve, from Phoenician to Old Hebrew via Old Aramaic, Ancient Greek and Latin laying the foundations of today’s modern characters.

Researchers decipher the message of a nearly 4,000-year-old comb